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October 24, 2011

Making Sense of the NIU Tragedy

Back in August 2008, Bullet Counter Points talked to journalist/author David Vann about a fascinating article he had just written for Esquire entitled “Portrait of the School Shooter as a Young Man.” The article dug into the past of Northern Illinois University (NIU) school shooter Steven Kazmierczak, and what it uncovered was truly frightening. Kazmierczak had attempted suicide three times, taken eight different medications for mental illness, and been institutionalized on five different occasions. Despite this history, he was still able to legally buy guns in Illinois and then kill 6 and wound 18 in a gruesome mass shooting at NIU on February 14, 2008.

But the information Vann had uncovered was far too extensive for just a magazine article. So he set about to write a full-length book about Kazmierczak and the massacre at NIU. It was released on October 20 and is titled Last Day on Earth (after a Marilyn Manson song that Kazmierczak listened to just before the shooting). We were able to ask Vann a few questions about his book and this horrific tragedy and here are his answers:

Going back to your original article in Esquire, why did you decide to learn more about Steven Kazmierczak and the horrific mass shooting at NIU?

I wanted to write an article about how armed suburban youth are. I inherited my father’s guns after he killed himself with a gun, when I was 13, and I led a double life in which I was a straight-A student by day, then wandering our neighborhood at night with his .300 magnum rifle (a rifle for hunting bears), shooting out streetlights and sighting in on the neighbors through their windows. I think it’s frightening how many kids and teens have access to guns in America, so I wanted to write about that. But my editor at Esquire suggested I look at Steve’s story, since he was an A student and everyone seemed very surprised by his shooting.

Why did you decide to contrast your own life with Kazmierczak’s in Last Day On Earth?

I wanted to try to answer the question of why Steve crossed the line and I didn’t. When I was 13, I was angry, alone, and had access to all these guns. Looking back, it seems possible I could have ended up killing someone, but I didn’t. I wanted to understand why I didn’t and why he did. What I found was that there were half a dozen strong influences on Steve’s life that made his shooting possible, influences I didn’t have in my own life. These included military service, time in the mental health system, libertarian politics, a mother who loved horror movies, etc.

The picture painted of Steve’s parents is one of indifference—two people who were more than happy to place their son’s care into other hands and be rid of him (He “was a pretty good guy,” was all his dad would say after the murders). But we know surprisingly little about Steve’s mom, who perhaps was the most powerful figure in his life. There are hints of serious mental health issues, but why is she so shrouded in mystery?

Steve’s sister Susan wouldn’t talk with me. I do have transcripts of all the interviews that law enforcement did with her, so I know everything she told police. And I asked Steve’s high school and junior high friends and girlfriends about his mother, and I have his own comments about his mother in his emails. He said, for instance, that she never forgave him, despite his earning nearly perfect grades in college. And, as I describe in the book, I have the accounts of his mental health history, in which he ran away from the institution in the Chicago area and begged his mother to take him back; accounts of his fights with her in which he called her a whore; his godfather’s claims that Steve’s mother was mentally ill, etc. So there is quite a bit about her in the book, and her death was perhaps the main event that precipitated his regressive slide into becoming a killer. But I wasn’t able to meet or interview her, since she was dead, and Susan wouldn’t talk with me, so I can’t provide a full portrait. I was very careful in the book not to make anything up or to try to draw conclusions that would go too far. I stuck to the 1,500 pages from the police file and the interviews, and the book, as a result, is a mountain of thousands of facts you can rely upon. But sticking to the facts also means there are gaps in the narrative.

Steve’s infatuation with violence starts perhaps earlier than his depression, with the abuse/sodomy of animals, shooting at cars, bombmaking, etc. Like the Columbine story, you wonder why no one picked up on these obvious red flags in his background—that perhaps he was not only a threat to himself, but others. Yet that element seems to be absent from his experience with mental health treatment as a teenager. How could they have missed it?

His parents knew he was mentally ill and asked the high school for help, but they refused. Soon afterward, Steve attempted suicide. In the bombmaking episode, which is earlier, in junior high, another kid was the instigator and had told a dozen kids how to make the bombs. The police saw Steve as a frightened, repentant kid. And the truth is that Steve was always afraid of getting into trouble and he wasn’t as scary as many of his friends. At least three kids in his neighborhood became drug dealers, for instance. There are so many violent, frightening kids in America, it was difficult for someone like Steve to stand out. Even in the end, after the shooting, many at NIU were surprised to learn the shooter was Steve because they had assumed the shooter must have been one of several other grad students who were scarier.

You hint briefly at Steven’s embrace of libertarianism as a factor that drove him to commit the murders. What role do you think it played?

Libertarianism favors the individual or small group above society and is therefore antithetical to most of what holds our society together. It’s very frightening. Most of our mass murderers have been libertarians. It’s the perfect political belief for them and fits well with Nietzche’s concept of the “superman,” someone above moral code. I don’t think Americans realize how frightening and dangerous libertarianism is. I would count it as the number one warning sign for a potential shooter, and it’s particularly dangerous when combined with former military service.

There is a fascinating chapter in your book where you talk about entering your neighbors’ houses during the day while they were away and looking for their guns. How often did you find them? Does it give you any perspective on the problem of gun theft today?

In 1980, it was very easy to get into someone’s house. Most people didn’t have answering machines yet, so I’d let the phone just keep ringing while I was in their house. And I didn’t have to break anything, because they all left their bathroom windows open a bit for air. I didn’t steal anything, but I did look through all their stuff, and they all kept their guns in the same places: in their closets or under their beds. It was very easy to find the guns, and they weren’t locked, and they had ammunition available. Nearly everyone had several guns in their home. The potential for gun theft is frightening, as is the access kids and teens have to guns. Even locked and hidden guns can be a problem. I know someone whose daughter committed suicide with a pistol that was locked with ammunition in a separate location. Over time, she was able to find the key to the lock and where the ammunition was kept.

What role does Steve’s taste for men play in his psychological make-up? Why did he hide his bisexuality/homosexuality so carefully? Did he reach a point where the sexuality of his partners no longer even mattered?

Last Day On Earth has much more information about Steve’s sex life than my Esquire article had, including the creepy emails he exchanged with one of his girlfriends which were a confusion of sex, mass murder, and racism. By the end, sexual despair was an important driving force for him and he was exhausting himself. One night, he had sex with at least three different women, for instance. He may have been sexually abused before junior high, but I wasn’t able to find any proof, only hints. Sex was secretive and shameful for him from the first, though, and he was attracted later to Marilyn Manson’s androgyny. He shaved his pubic hair and eyebrows and wanted to be dominated. He was with men in high school and also near the end, and part of his love of the movie “Fight Club” was a denial of his homosexuality (that movie is about the denial of homosexuality through a hyper-heterosexual alter-ego, played by Brad Pitt). Steve’s sister Susan is gay, and he told her near the end that he thought he might be gay, and I think this was a move in a good direction for him, accepting his sexuality, but it didn’t last long. He went back into denial. I want to be clear in this answer that I’m not saying homosexuality was a problem for him, only his denial and shame around it. And there’s too much in the book about his sexuality to really summarize effectively here.

Steve’s racism also had a conflicted feel to it, particularly since he apparently dated (and really cared for) an African American girl at one point.

I think Steve’s racism was an important part of how he was able to commit mass murder. As James Baldwin pointed out so well more than 50 years ago, you can’t be racist without hating yourself, and Steve’s final act was one of self-erasure in more ways than just his suicide and the killings, but also in staging it in the one place where he had succeeded and made something of himself. And racism is of course always conflicted. One of his college roommates reported to police that Steve struggled to recover from a former relationship with an African-American woman, a relationship that ended because of stress and strain over race.

Steve’s interaction with the military is almost exactly the situation we saw with Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter. They bring these young men in, determine that they have severe problems, and then discharge without notifying any other federal agency of these issues. So both are free to buy guns legally—and in Steve’s case, he’s also been taught to kill without emotion because he’s completed Basic Training.

The Army realized Steve was a danger to himself and others, so they kept him in a psychiatric ward with precautions against suicide and then dumped him in his hometown, Elk Grove Village, without any notifications to anyone that he might be a danger. I think we should consider this a criminal act and work to prevent the military from doing it. People discharged from the military in this way also should of course never be able to buy a gun. But it’s important to remember the larger problem here. Most of our mass murderers who were old enough to have served in the military did. And this is because the military teaches not only how to kill a person with a gun but also how to do that killing without feeling anything, with no emotional or psychological response. Steve explained this to his best friend. He mentioned several times that he’d been trained to kill without feeling anything, and indeed in the mass murder he committed, he appeared to feel nothing at all. The teacher in the classroom said that when Steve pointed the pistol at him, it made him think of someone who’s painting a room and realized they’ve missed a spot.

Steve’s decision to go to NIU was a double-edged sword. On one level, it allowed him to leave his past behind to a degree and define a new, more satisfying life for himself. On another, as a therapist had warned, it allowed him to ignore his mental health issues and eventually led to a “hard crash.”

The mental health system did not serve Steve well. I think it only amplified his problems. And though one therapist did warn him against setting out too quickly, I hate to give the therapist any credit, because the fact is that Steve became worse in the mental health system, not better, and he did improve in all ways at NIU. I think there was no downside to his success at NIU, and I think if he could have stayed at NIU longer, without moving to the University of Illinois (UI), he might not ever have killed.

The double life Steve lived at NIU is fascinating. His professors and many of his friends knew him as this quiet, incredibly polite, well groomed young man who was thoughtful, sensitive, highly intelligent, and always eager to help other students. In reality, he spent much of his time obsessing over mass shootings, playing first person shooter video games, trolling for sex on the internet, fighting with his family, and agonizing over his mental illness. Only a select few knew about this side of him.

In the book, I describe the timing and all the transitions, and the timing is very important. When these professors and friends knew him, his life actually was better. And as his life took a dive, he was more removed from them and moved away at UI. The key is that he was regressing to who he was in high school and junior high, and that former life really was perfectly shaped for mass murder. His professors and friends at NIU, with the exception of Jessica Baty, didn’t know this past, so they couldn’t get the Steve they knew to fit with this killer. There was a 5-year gap they couldn’t cross. The FOID card he acquired for buying guns legally only checked the past 5 years for mental health history, so that system also couldn’t know who he really was. Background checks obviously have to go all the way back. If we learn one simple thing from his story, it should be that. But of course the gun nuts will howl and claim we’re taking away everything American.

In your life, you experienced a turning point when you were able to escape your teenage angst and let those emotions go. Kazmierczak seemed so close to that at one point in NIU after being given the Dean’s Award and graduating, only to fall into despondency and insanity again when he just can’t make it in a work environment and his mother dies. It’s perhaps the most tragic and powerful moment in your book—that thought of “what could have been.”

Steve had this tremendous drive to reshape himself—the true American dream—which is not really about money, but about the larger reshaping of identity and worth. And it’s amazing he could get that Deans’ Award after his terrible mental health history and the years in which it seemed he had no future at all. And I do think he almost made it. The combination, though, of his mother’s death and the move to UI was just too much. His last semester at NIU, his grades didn’t matter (they wouldn’t transfer over to UI), so he started going to the shooting range instead of classes. From my own experience of shooting things for three years after my father’s suicide—years in which I told everyone he had died of cancer since I was so ashamed of his suicide—I think that guns are a dangerous substitute. I don’t think guns are ever really about guns but always about something else; and those who want guns are in denial of that something else.

Another fascinating discovery is that Steve was a proud NRA member who bragged about this affiliation to his friends. Steve’s comment about Illinois’ FOID licensing system is also telling, particularly since it never stopped him from buying guns: “It’s back to the days of the Hitler regime. The government is trying to track us.” He reads gun magazines, indulges conspiracy theories about Timothy McVeigh, cites the Turner Diaries. This kid was fully submerged in the gun culture and its extreme ideology.

Steve’s views really were right in line with the views of the pro-gun lobby, with his libertarianism, paranoid beliefs about the federal government, desire for secrecy, love of guns, interest in crime, etc., but he actually thought it was ridiculous that he was able to buy a gun legally after his terrible mental health history. He wrote a paper titled “(NO) Crazies With Guns,” and here’s an excerpt: “I have only five words for you: From my cold, dead hands. Those words spoken by Charlton Heston, and immortalized by the popular press, have come to symbolize the pro-gun lobby’s arguably firm and unshakeable ideology with respect to their opposition to anti-gun (whether real or perceived) legislation. With that being said, what if those so-called cold, dead hands happen to not only contain a firearm, but also a half-filled bottle of anti-psychotic drugs?”

It’s a telling statement about our country that Steve and Seung-Hui Cho both purchased weapons/apparel from the same online gun dealer, Eric Thompson, who was totally unrepentant and went to Virginia Tech AFTER both tragedies to promote his business to students. You can’t help but think, too, of the t-shirts Steve wore—like the one of the handgun superimposed over the American flag.

The Glock 19, which Steve and Cho both used (and which Jared Loughner in Tucson also used), is made to kill a lot of people very reliably at close range in a short period of time. Mass murder is an American right, and there are lots of weapons to choose from: We have high-capacity handguns; short-barreled riot shotguns; assault rifles that can easily be converted to machine guns; .50-caliber sniper rifles, etc. It’s the Wild West but with better equipment. In some states, it’s now legal to wear a pistol on your hip in a bar. We just had a mass-murder in California yesterday, and we’re going to have more. One weekend while I was in DeKalb investigating, April 19-20, 2008, there were 36 separate shootings in Chicago, with 9 homicides. Weapons included an AK-47 assault rifle. Is it “media spin” to mention this?

What role did high-capacity ammunition magazines play in the NIU shooting?

Steve bought several 32-round magazines for the shooting but ended up not using them. I think this was because he wanted to begin with the “shock and awe” of the shotgun first, which wouldn’t kill anyone (he was using only birdshot) but would create confusion. In order to use the shotgun first, he had to tuck the pistols away, and I think there was no way of doing that easily with the longer magazines. But the Glock 19 has a high-enough capacity standard magazine to be very deadly. It killed everyone in Steve’s shooting, and it killed most of Cho’s victims at Virginia Tech. We should of course step back a moment and wonder why we want citizens to have high-capacity magazines. In what situation do we want a citizen to be able to kill a lot of people quickly, without having to change magazines? What is the situation, exactly, that the gun nuts are imagining? Invasion by zombies is the only one I can think of.

Steve told Jessica “If anything happens, don’t tell anyone about me.” And she hasn’t. It’s obvious in the book that disturbs you deeply. It’s the moment in The Last Day on Earth where it’s clear this book is personal to you. Your fury at her is barely veiled, and you go as far as to suggest that she is as mentally ill as he was. It’s almost as if you’re bitter at these people—Jessica and many of Steve’s other NIU friends—for defending someone they considered a friend even after he takes so many innocent lives in a cold-blooded way, even after all the facts about Steve’s past are laid bare to them. And yet even you express sympathy for Steve in the last two lines of your book.

I do have sympathy for all who were affected by Steve’s shooting, including Jessica. And as I mention in the book, I have sympathy for her especially because of the Valentine’s Day gifts he sent to her, one of them an engagement ring. She thought she was going to be proposed to, and instead he committed mass murder. But I don’t like lies, so I don’t like that she lied to me and tried to cover up the story. I don’t have any negative feelings toward his professors and fellow grad students at NIU. They really didn’t know who he was. He had reinvented himself in the previous five years and kept his past a secret from them. And I certainly have full sympathy for anyone going through suicide bereavement. I have sympathy, also, for Steve, who really struggled and almost succeeding in escaping his terrible past, and I think the end must have been bitter to him. But of course our sympathies in the end have to be with his victims—including the larger community affected—and by the time I finished writing the book, I couldn’t help but think of Steve as a monster, despite all my attempts to remain sympathetic. He planned the killing at least 11 days in advance, and he was chirpy in his emails and such right up to the end, so that makes him a monster.

It’s interesting that the owner of Tony’s Guns & Ammo, the place where Steve purchased some of his guns & ammo, voluntarily surrendered his Federal Firearms License after the murders. To your knowledge, what were the police or ATF investigating him for at that point?

It seems it was because Steve traded in his old guns at the store and Tony didn’t report this to police. I think it’s possible the ATF is hiding something, too, since their initial reports and all witness reports are consistent with a Remington 870 shotgun but they later claimed it was a Sportsman 48 (and perhaps this is what Tony put on the sales form). Perhaps they were just covering up the fact that gun forms could go through with the wrong model listed, or perhaps I just don’t have the full information, but it’s very strange.

What ultimately can we take from Kazmierczak’s story? Is there anything positive to learn from this tragedy? Could it have been prevented?

If the FOID card had checked lifelong mental health history instead of just five years of history, I think the shooting could have prevented, because I don’t believe Steve would have obtained firearms illegally. There are many other lessons we could learn from this shooting, also, as I’ve described above in answer to other questions. Because I had access to the full 1,500 pages of the police file, we have a very complete portrait that can help us identify risk factors. But the biggest risk factors (such as gun ownership, libertarianism, poverty, former military service, an interest in horror movies, etc.) are major currents in American culture, so unless we can change our entire nation in fundamental ways, we should expect many more shootings to come. One positive part about Steve’s story is seeing how close education came to preventing the shooting. Education does lead people away from all of the risk factors.

July 11, 2011

Getting to Know "Doc" Holliday

One of the great legends of the American Old West surrounds the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corrall. The “winners” of this gun battle against the Clanton-McLaury gang—the Earp brothers and John Henry “Doc” Holliday—are still household names today because of popular films like “Tombstone” (1993) and “Wyatt Earp” (1994) and two recent books: “The Last Gunfight” by Jeff Guinn and “Doc” by Mary Doria Russell.

We were fortunate to catch up with Mary Doria Russell to ask her some questions about her new novel and the fascinating life of her lead character. Mary is the author of four previous best-sellers: The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, and Dreamers of the Day. Because of her historical knowledge about the Old West, and her familiarity with law enforcement (having grown up the daughter of a sheriff), she was able to provide valuable insight into the issue of gun violence and gun laws in the U.S. today.

What attracted you to the character of Doc Holliday?

I’m always interested borderlands, and in people who cross boundaries and defy categories. The characters in my novels are often migrants or foreigners, half-castes or marginal natives who don’t quite fit the place they're in and who have developed a somewhat distanced and ironic view of their world.

John Henry Holliday certainly fits that pattern, but it's important to realize that he was a real person—not just a fictional character—and he'd beaten some formidable odds simply by surviving infancy. He was born in Griffin, Georgia, in 1851 with a cleft palate and a cleft lip. His uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, performed a successful surgical repair of that birth defect, although the achievement was kept private to protect the family's reputation for “good breeding”—a term taken literally until quite recently. [Editor’s Note: Mary has established the Doc Holliday Memorial Fund at The Smile Train, an organization that provides free cleft palate and cleft lip surgeries to children around the world. To contribute, go to www.MaryDoriaRussell.net and click on DONATE]. When the toddler began to talk, it was obvious that he would have a significant speech impediment, so his mother developed a form of speech therapy to improve his diction. Alice Holliday was also an accomplished pianist who began her son's lessons as soon as he could reach the keyboard.

The Hollidays were Georgia gentry, and John Henry was meant to be a minor aristocrat in a South that ceased to exist after the Civil War. Instead he went to the best dental school in the North, earning the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery when he was still only 20 years old. He was a skilled and serious professional who expected to live a quiet life in the East but just as he was beginning to establish his adult life, he was diagnosed with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. So he went West in 1873, at the age of 22, hoping that the dry air and sunshine of the Great American Desert would restore his health.

Talk about crossing borders and never truly really fitting in!

In the movies, the “legendary gambler and gunman Doc Holliday” usually arrives in town with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. The real John Henry Holliday had studied the Greek and Latin classics as well as rhetoric, history and mathematics. At the Philadelphia College of Dental Surgery, his coursework included metallurgy, chemistry, physiology, gross anatomy, dental histology, oral pathology, in addition to surgical practicum. Plus, he played classical piano!

Now, few of us have read Homer or Virgil in the original languages, but at least we've seen the movie “Troy” on television! We may not be able to play Chopin or Beethoven, but most of us know who they were. So if we'd been dropped into Dodge City in 1878, our frame of reference would be more like Doc Holliday's than Wyatt Earp's. With John Henry Holliday as the focus of the novel, I was able to write in a very different way about the frontier. That was the era of Western boomtowns and cattle drives and pioneers, but also of Tolstoy and Dickens and Flaubert, of the ballet “Coppelia” and the opera “Carmen.” Rockefeller had founded Standard Oil. Electric lights and the phonograph and the telephone were developed about the time that Doc Holliday met Wyatt Earp in Dodge City. John Henry Holliday's knowledge and sensibilities bridge those worlds for us.

How did Doc Holliday—an educated, talented, skilled man—become involved with violence and gunplay?

Reluctantly, and as rarely as possible! Keep in mind that this was a sick young man, a six-footer who never weighed much more than 150 and was closer to 100 pounds when he died at just 36. One of the few true things Bat Masterson said about John Henry Holliday was that Doc “could not have whipped a healthy 15-year-old boy in a go-as-you-please fistfight.” As Doc himself told Wyatt Earp, “The only time I'm not nervous is when I'm working on someone's teeth.”

I believe Doc initially played up his dangerousness. Today, the same sort of scared, skinny boy in a rough neighborhood might try to seem more “gangsta” than he is. As time went on, however, Doc's reputation took on a life of its own. After the gunfight in Tombstone, the journalists of his day invented “The Infamous Gunman and Gambler Doc Holliday,” a character who could sell a lot more newspapers than Dr. John Henry Holliday, D.D.S.

There is so much mythology surrounding Holliday's marksmanship and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. How much of it is accurate?

The mythology isn't accurate, and neither was Doc! The most careful biographers—the ones who've gone over court records and contemporaneous newspaper reports to verify or debunk all the accusations—believe that John Henry Holliday was in five confirmed shooting affrays in his 15 years in the West.

At 3:00 A.M. on New Year’s Day in 1875, he and Charles Austin fired their pistols within Dallas city limits. While the peace was disturbed, neither man was hurt.

When Doc was 25, he was attacked and seriously wounded by Henry Kahn after a quarrel over cards, which Kahn started. Recovery took five months, and Doc needed a walking stick off and on for the rest of his life.

In 1880, a year before the famous gunfight, he got into an argument with the gambler Johnny Tyler over who was allowed to run card games in which Tombstone saloons. Milt Joyce decided to end the argument by picking Doc up bodily and flinging him into the street. Infuriated, Doc obtained a gun (it was illegal to carry one in Tombstone), returned to the saloon and emptied the revolver, hitting Joyce in the palm and a bartender in the big toe. I'm not downplaying those injuries—Milt Joyce almost lost the hand, and the bartender was lamed—but they are hardly evidence of deadly accuracy.

During the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tom McLaury was hit in the chest by a shotgun blast at a distance of six feet; he is believed to be the only man John Henry Holliday ever killed. Again, accuracy was not an issue when the weapon is a scattergun at two yards.

Finally, in 1884, Billy Allen threatened to kill Doc over a $5 loan that Doc—destitute and very ill—couldn't pay back on time. When Allen came after him, Doc defended himself with a pistol, wounding Allen in the right upper arm, at close range. Doc feared for his life, so I'm guessing he didn't deliberately try to “wing” Allen. I think that was just the best he could do. At 122 pounds, he was sick and shaky; the pistol was heavy for him. It's important to note that Doc did everything he could to avoid that confrontation, including asking for an extension on the loan and then appealing to the Leadville, Colorado police for protection from Allen. They declined to get involved until after the shooting.

Allen went down and if it were a movie, Doc would have “finished the job.” In real life, with Allen disabled, he allowed himself to be arrested without protest and stood trial for attempted murder. Doc pointed out in court that Allen outweighed him by 50 pounds, and noted, “If he'd got hold of me, I'd have been a child in his hands.” The jury could see that was true, and quickly acquitted Holliday on grounds of self-defense.

That's it. Everything else is fiction. And no, he didn't really knife a guy, as depicted in the movie “Tombstone.”As his long-time companion Kate Harony wrote of Doc, “Being quiet, he never hunted trouble.”

Kate also disputed Doc's reputation as a drinker. “He was not a drunkard. He always kept a bottle near, but when he needed something for his pain, he would only take a small drink.” Bourbon is, in fact, effective for calming a cough and also helped mute the chest and bone pain he suffered throughout his adult life. Tuberculosis is an awful disease.

Americans typically think of “the Wild West” as a place where gun laws were weak and permissive. Is that what you found in your research for the novel Doc?

Well, it depends on when and where you're talking about. Typically, western boomtowns mushroomed into existence in a place that was generating gigantic piles of cash—the buffalo killing fields; gold and silver mining camps; a railroad under construction, etc. For the first two to three years in these places, there was a total absence of law just when the population consisted of minimally educated, testosterone-driven young men, most of whom had a family history of what we consider violent abuse today, but which came under the heading of “Spare the rod, spoil the child” back then.

Huge quantities of alcohol were made available by enterprising entrepreneurs, and there were few recreational alternatives to drinking. Whores, mostly young runaways or orphans, were vastly outnumbered and frequently fought over. Boredom, simmering rancor and the assiduous cultivation of grudges led to manly moments of indignation. Disagreements were likely to get physical. And the entire country was awash in firearms after the Civil War.

Then, as now, enraged young men used what came easily to hand. So it's true that in those first couple of years in any given settlement, there was a lot of gun violence and many deaths, though stand-up shoot-outs in the street are almost entirely a movie fantasy (the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was one of very few such fights in real life). Frontier shootings were nearly always the result of momentary fury, drunken foolishness, or plain clumsiness in a place where guns were as common as trousers.

Soon, however, a city government would be organized by local businessmen, who noticed that dead men make poor customers. In Dodge City, for example, it was illegal to discharge firearms within the city limits except on the Fourth of July and New Year's Day. The rest of the year, when you came into town, you were required to surrender your firearms in the first place you entered. Most public buildings had peg racks for the purpose and you were given a claim number; when you left town again, you could retrieve your gun. If you were discovered to be carrying a gun, and the police officer decided you were not on your way in or out of town, you would be arrested, jailed and fined. The police commonly pistol-whipped anyone who showed the slightest sign of resistance to being disarmed. Concussions must have been epidemic, but that was considered more humane than shooting the idiot.

During the cattle boom of the 1870s and '80s, all the Kansas cow towns had gun control ordinances, and those laws were enforced by men like Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp; Ed, Bat and Jim Masterson; by Bill Tilghman and Dave Mather. They all had formidable reputations. Their presence on the police force made these laws stick, despite the fact that the towns were seasonally flooded by thousands of young cowboys with no head for liquor, intent on blowing three months' wages as quickly as possible in saloons, gambling halls, and brothels.

And while the gunfight in Tombstone had many causes, what finally set it off that afternoon was a misdemeanor: carrying firearms inside city limits.

Wyatt Earp is purported to have written, “Doc was a dentist not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity made a gambler.” Do you agree with that assessment?

The whole quote is “Doc [Holliday] was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a gun that I ever knew.”

I suspect that whole quote is bogus, although Wyatt always defended Doc's good character. You can usually tell when a ghostwriter or a journalist put a colorful quote in Wyatt's mouth. Wyatt was not well educated and not terribly articulate.

If you want an authentic quote about Doc Holliday, I believe this one by Virgil Earp, who said, “Tales were told that [Doc] had murdered men in different parts of the country, that he had robbed and committed all kinds of crimes, and yet when people were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was hearsay, and nothing of the kind could really be traced up to Doc's account.”

Unlike Wyatt and Morgan, Virgil never really warmed to Doc, but he was a fair man and that's a fair statement. Everyone who really knew Doc agreed that he was a fine dentist, a quiet person who bore his illness with fortitude, and a gentleman who was grateful for the smallest kindness when he was ill. And he was generous when he tipped!

Holliday was once asked if his killings had ever gotten on his conscience and was reported to have said, “I coughed my conscience up with my lungs, years ago.” But Kate Harony, his long-time companion, remembered a different Doc Holliday, saying that after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, he came back to their room and wept.

Again, the quote about Doc’s conscience is probably bogus. But, yes, Kate wrote that he came back to their room after the gunfight, sat on the side of the bed, and said over and over, “This is awful. This is just awful.” That was his private reaction to the only killing he ever did.

He was also horrified when the incident made national news. Soon after the gunfight, he wired his family in Georgia to assure them that he had been deputized before the event and was acting within the law, but the damage was done. The papers identified him as a professional gambler, and that was something he'd hidden from his family for years.

It's hard for us to understand now, but in those days, a professional gambler was beyond the pale. As John Henry Holliday's cousin Margaret Mitchell wrote in Gone with the Wind, “A man could gamble himself to poverty and still be a gentleman, but a professional gambler could never be anything but an outcast.” When John Henry Holliday's father found out his son was gambling professionally, he never spoke his son's name again. The Hollidays were besieged by reporters after the Tombstone event, and began to run them off by claiming that they were no relation to that man.

That was devastating for John Henry. He was profoundly ashamed of how his life turned out, but really—what were his alternatives? He'd arrived on the frontier just as the Crash of 1873 sent the country into a depression that lasted for years. Who had money for dental care? It was play cards, beg, steal, or starve in the street. So he played cards.

How did their participation in violence affect Holliday and the Earp family?

That's a difficult question to answer. And I'm not sure I should try, in the context of an interview like this. As a novelist, I can draw plausible conclusions about the mental states of the people I write about, but it's all conjecture.

We know that Nicholas Earp beat the daylights out of all his sons, and that had a big effect on all of them. Beaten boys often repeat the cycle: bullying others and abusing their own kids. Sometimes, however, they rebel against the abuse by becoming protective of others. Such men are often drawn to law enforcement, and the Earp brothers follow that pattern.

We also know that the older brothers—Newton, James and Virgil—served in the Union army during the Civil War. James was horribly wounded in battle and lost the use of his left arm. Newton and Virgil served until the end of the war. We now know that post-traumatic stress is common among combat veterans, but the older brothers' lives are not well documented and in any case, the symptoms of PTSD would not have been mentioned in their time. Wyatt, Morgan and Warren Earp were too young to enlist, as was John Henry Holliday, who was just 13 when the war ended. As mentioned above, he was severely injured and permanently lamed in 1877; we may presume that a gunshot wound like that would have had significant emotional aftereffects as well.

We do know, however, that the gunfight at the O.K. Corral changed the lives of everyone who participated—even peripherally—and all for the worse.

Tom and Frank McLaury were killed, as was Billy Clanton. Virgil and Morgan Earp were seriously wounded, and John Henry Holliday was grazed by a bullet; Wyatt was unscathed physically. Ike Clanton lost a beloved brother, and filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday, who were only exonerated because—quite frankly—Wyatt and Virgil seem to have perjured themselves to protect Morgan and Doc. Sheriff John Behan has been denigrated as a coward and a conniver ever since the incident, and the men on both sides of the fight have been vilified for over a century.

Vendettas happen when people do not believe that the police or the courts can be relied on to serve justice. No justice, no peace. I think that is what happened in Arizona. Friends of those who died during the shoot-out decided the law wasn't going to punish the killers, so they took it on themselves. Virgil Earp was ambushed; a shotgun blast destroyed his arm. Morgan was shot in the back and died in Wyatt's arms. In reaction, Wyatt, Doc and several others hunted down those they held responsible for crippling Virgil and murdering Morgan. The Earp posse wore badges at the time, but Wyatt was certain the men would not be convicted if he brought them in for trial, so he gunned them down personally. We'd call those deaths “extra-judicial executions” today.

Wyatt was led to believe he'd be pardoned by the territorial governor, but that never happened. All the men in the Earp posse were wanted for murder the rest of their lives and had to flee across the Arizona border. Any arrest elsewhere could have resulted in extradition to Arizona, where they might be tried for murder, if not lynched. Direct retaliation was a constant threat for all of them. And they all had to deal with their (now deserved) reputation as killers.

For the next 50 years, Wyatt was suspicious of anyone who approached him. Even the little kids were unwelcome because he suspected “they just wanted to shake the hand of a killer.” Wyatt lived into his 80s, long enough to see the gunfight in Tombstone be turned into movie entertainment. He was really bitter about that.

What would the Earp brothers have thought of contemporary laws that allow cursorily screened individuals with a day-class in training (if that) to carry loaded, concealed handguns into bars?

I suspect Virgil would have snorted, "Idiots making laws for idiots..."

Wyatt might have thought, "That's going to set public order back 150 years."

And Morgan would have told Doc, "You've got to be more careful now. I can't always be around to protect you."

Have you or your family been impacted by gun violence or the threat of it?

Well, now, my father was a career cop. He was an MP in the Marines during the occupation of Japan, and later a village constable, a county deputy in a cruiser, a plain clothes detective, and an undercover narcotics officer. He also served five terms as the sheriff of DuPage County in Illinois, just west of Chicago. So I grew up with guns and cops. Police work was dinner table conversation in our house.

But I should point out that my father never once fired his gun in anger. That's typical. Most cops go their whole careers without pulling a trigger except at the gun range. If they do shoot someone, they're taken off active duty, there's an investigation, and every decision they ever made comes under scrutiny by people who have no idea what that job is really like.

Believe nothing you see in the movies or on TV. Nothing.

Do you still own a gun or have one in your house?

My dad always wanted me to keep a pistol in the house “for protection.” I always told him, “I believe in statistics. Any bullet fired in the middle of the night by a startled, stupefied homeowner is more likely to hit a family member, a pet, or a neighbor in the house next door than an alert intruder.”

A few years ago, my father—an ex-Marine, career policeman, five-term sheriff—was showing a pistol to one of the grandkids. It went off and the bullet went through the sliding glass door and into the neighbor's back yard. Dad was stunned and said, as people always do, “I was sure the gun wasn't loaded.”

It was: Q.E.D.

So no guns in my house. But I have a very ferocious dachshund.

June 20, 2011

The Inconsistent Insurrectionist

Though Stephen Colbert and his political satire show The Colbert Report are found on Comedy Central, they occasionally provide serious and noteworthy news missed by the major media networks. Such was the case on June 7 when Colbert aired a segment focusing on comments made by U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) on Sean Hannity’s radio show on May 27.
In that conversation with Hannity, Paul stated:

I would say the reason we failed in Ft. Hood is people who were mentioning that this man was either unstable or was radicalized to a radical form of Islam. People knew that and that’s what we need to target our resources towards—people who would attack us—and not spend time searching and patting down 6 year olds ... I’m not for profiling people on the color of their skin, or on their religion, but I would take into account where they’ve been traveling and perhaps you might have to indirectly take into account whether or not they’ve been going to radical political speeches by religious leaders but it wouldn’t be that they are Islamic. But if someone is attending speeches from someone who is promoting the violent overthrow of our government, that’s really an offense that we should be going after. They should be deported or put in prison.

Sen. Paul then doubled down on his comments at a press conference in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on June 3:

I think we’ve taken too much of the approach that everyone is a possible terrorist … We are not spending enough specific time on those who are coming from certain countries … I want targeted action towards terrorism … We’re…searching millions of innocent Americans and wasting time on that, and not doing a thorough job on those who are coming from these Middle Eastern countries who I think need to be thoroughly vetted before they enter our country.

But if Paul truly believes that anyone who attends speeches “promoting the violent overthrow of our government…should be deported or put in prison,” then he, too, should begin packing his bags. Colbert pointed to Paul’s attendance at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Westpoint, Kentucky in April of this year, where the lead singer of the band Pokerface gave the following speech:

[Obama] is basically the exclamation point on the globalist takeover of the United States ... Too many of us are waking up and too many are heavily armed. They are going to push and we are going to shove back. The second American Revolution will commence.

Violence against government was certainly the fad at Knob Creek, with vendors selling a wide range of “Militia literature,” including the U.S. Militiaman's Handbook, “a step-by-step guide for ‘R-2,’ the second American Revolution.” Here’s one excerpt from the handbook: "When municipal, township, county, or local area law enforcement agents attack or seek to confine or control the U.S. Militia or its individual members, those agencies should be totally eliminated in the initial attack ... Do not allow any law enforcement agents to escape. Kill them all."

Then there was March 27, 2010, when Sen. Paul attended and spoke at a Second Amendment Rally in Frankfort, Kentucky where a Congressional candidate named Matt Locket made a speech openly embracing insurrectionist ideology. Citing Federalist Alexander Hamilton (who would have found his ideas treasonous at best), Locket said:

We cannot stand by and let our rights to firearms be taken away ... Alexander Hamilton...states clearly that there exists the right of self-defense against a tyrannical government and it includes people with their arms ... Are we there or are we close to a tyrannical government? ... We need to tell the government...to fear us because it’s we the people that are in charge—not them!

And Rand Paul has made his own share of not-so-subtle threats toward our government. In June 2010, he attended a gun show in Louisville and said, “We must be ever vigilant of our Second Amendment rights. We must continually remind Washington that a majority cannot vote to take away our Second Amendment rights.” At the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in August 2009, Paul made bizarre, paranoid comments about “Big Brother” and the enforcement of U.S. gun laws:

They can come into your house. They can plant listening devices in your house ... And let’s say they happen to be in your house snooping about something they thought you said something bad about the government and they find you’ve disabled your trigger locks or you’ve maybe done something to your guns that they say is illegal ... This is not to say we’re all criminals and afraid of the government, but we want our privacy.

Later in the same speech, he hypothesized that Americans could elect the next Adolf Hitler if they fail to remain “vigilant”:

If we get economic calamity even worse than we have now, you will lose your rights if you’re not vigilant and watch. What happened in Germany when the Weimar Republic printed up so much money you could carry it around in wheelbarrows? There was a collapse and they actually voted in a Hitler. You could get something like that in our country if we’re not careful and vigilant.

It seems clear from Sen. Paul’s statements that he’s particularly concerned about potential violence against our government by Muslims. And he has no problem with our government going after them aggressively—civil rights be damned. When it comes to the Senator’s white, gun-toting, government-hating friends who are ready to launch a bloody revolution, however, all bets are off. Any U.S. government that would address that threat is akin to a mass murdering dictator who butchered six million people.

Unfortunately for Paul, you can’t embrace a double standard and say that the threat of political violence is justified depending on one’s citizenship status or religion. You either believe that political violence is legitimate in our democracy or you don’t. Our Founding Fathers certainly stood in the latter camp.

June 9, 2011

Al Qaeda: "America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms."

The assassination of Al Qaeda’s mastermind, Osama bin Laden, demonstrated that the U.S. government can act with great resilience when it comes to combating terrorism. But a new Al Qaeda video released on jihadi websites last Friday provides a terrifyingly simple blueprint for mass murder that should have all Americans deeply concerned. In the video message, Adam Gadahn, an American-born Al Qaeda spokesman, calls on Muslims to purchase firearms at American gun shows and engage in one-man “lone wolf” operations to target “enemies of Islam,” “major institutions” and “influential public figures” in the United States.

Gadahn, who has been on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Terrorists List for over ten years, instructed would-be terrorists as follows:

America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle, without a background check, and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?

Gadahn was describing what is known as the “Gun Show Loophole,” which allows anyone—including terrorists—to walk into an American gun show and buy firearms from an unlicensed seller without undergoing a criminal background check. Under current federal law, anyone “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms must obtain a Federal Firearms License (FFL), conduct background checks on purchasers, and keep a record of all gun sales. Private individuals not “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms (e.g., those who sell guns as a “hobby” or from their private collections), however, are not subject to any of these requirements. Because there is no paper trail associated with private sales, law enforcement has no way of monitoring them.

Unfortunately, the Gun Show Loophole remains fully or partially open in 33 states today. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has always insisted that the loophole is a “fable,” in spite of acknowledging that there are individuals “who occasionally [sell] firearms under limited circumstances” that are “not required to obtain the federal license…or to complete a background check.” The NRA’s relentless fight against closing the loophole began in the immediate wake of the Columbine massacre in 1999, despite the fact that teenage killer made it clear that, “The biggest gaping hole is that the background checks are only required for licensed dealers...not private dealers.”

The NRA’s opposition to closing the Gun Show Loophole is not shared by its membership, however. In a survey of 832 gun owners, including 401 NRA members, Republican pollster Frank Luntz and Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that 69% of NRA members favored "requiring all gun sellers at gun shows to conduct criminal background checks of the people buying guns." Overall, 86% of Americans favor closing the Gun Show Loophole.

The Gun Show Loophole is not the only weak link in America’s gun laws abetting terrorists. Fears concerning the “Terror Gap” have also resurfaced with the new Al Qaeda video. While those on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List are currently prevented from boarding airplanes, they are free to purchase all the firearms they want at American gun stores and gun shows. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has reported that between 2004 and 2010, suspected terrorists purchased guns on 1,119 occasions.

There have been numerous attempts in Congress to address the Terror Gap, but none have been successful. Most recently, on May 12, 21 Republicans* on the House Judiciary Committee killed an amendment that would have prevented firearms sales to those on the Terrorist Watch List.

These Republican votes reflect the sentiments of the NRA, which opposes efforts to close the “Terror Gap,” claiming they would “deny a constitutionally protected, fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms without due process of law.” Luntz’s survey again indicates that the NRA is not representing the views of its membership, as 82% of NRA members support closing the “Terror Gap.”

According to a spokesman for the Justice Department, the Obama administration “supports closing the gun show loophole.” But Americans shouldn’t have to wait for a terrorist to open fire in a shopping mall or a corporate headquarters for terrorist violence to be thwarted. Will Adam Gadahn’s eye-opening message to terrorists be enough for legislators to “connect the dots” and take action? We should all hope so.

* The 21 Republicans who voted “No” on the amendment were: Smith, Sensenbrenner, Coble, Gallegly, Goodlatte, Lungren, Chabot, Issa, Pence, Forbes, Franks, Gohmert, Jordan, Poe, Chaffetz, Griffin, Marino, Gowdy, Ross, Adams, Quayle.

May 25, 2011

Capitol Hill Champions of NRA “Values”

On May 12, the Senate Ethics Committee asked federal agencies to investigate a former colleague, saying they had found “substantial and credible evidence” that Nevada Republican John Ensign broke federal laws while trying to cover up an extramarital affair with a former campaign aide. The 75-page report from the committee came just two weeks after Ensign hurriedly resigned his Senate seat in the midst of the ethics probe.

Ensign now joins a growing list of National Rifle Association (NRA) champions on Capitol Hill who have been tarnished and/or ruined by extramarital sex scandals. For an organization that trumpets its “celebration of American values,” it smacks of cynicism and hypocrisy. The following is a rogues’ gallery of these NRA stalwarts:

  1. Former Senator John Ensign (R-NV): When the NRA decided to torpedo a District of Columbia voting rights bills in February 2009, it was Senator John Ensign to whom they turned. Ensign introduced an amendment to the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” that would have gutted the District’s gun laws and prevented the D.C. Council from legislating on firearms in the future. As one D.C. resident put it at the time: “If this amendment becomes law, it would make me frightened to work and live in a city that has been my home for thirteen years.” Unfortunately, the Ensign Amendment was the perfect “poison pill” amendment, and it denied D.C. residents their best change to obtaining voting representation in the U.S. Congress for decades.
    In a press release, NRA-Institute of Legislative Action (ILA) Executive Director Chris Cox praised Ensign’s leadership saying, “The NRA would like to thank the lead sponsor, Sen. John Ensign for his efforts to reform D.C.’s gun laws.”

    The Senate Ethics Committee began a two-year investigation into allegations against Ensign after receiving a complaint on June 24, 2009 from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). The focus of the investigation was an affair between Ensign and Cindy Hampton, a former campaign aide and the wife of Doug Hampton, the Senator’s administrative assistant and close friend. The committee uncovered a $96,000 "gift" that Ensign's parents gave to the Hamptons after Doug Hampton learned of the affair and the couple stopped working for Ensign. They also learned that Ensign steered Doug Hampton into a lobbying job (despite a federal law that bans staffers from lobbying the Senate within a year of leaving positions in the chamber) and actively assisted him by calling federal agencies and officials to promote the interests of Hampton's clients.

    The committee concluded that Ensign made false statements to the Federal Election Commission and obstructed their investigation into his conduct. The investigation has been turned over to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. This is the first time since 1995 that the committee has had to refer a case about a current or former Senator to federal investigators.

  2. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK): Senator Tom Coburn’s colleagues have given him a nickname that describes his propensity to place holds on bills which he doesn’t care for: “Dr. No.” And Coburn has made it abundantly clear that he opposes “any and all efforts to mandate gun control on law-abiding citizens.” In 2009, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) introduced the “Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act” for the purpose of establishing “fair and transparent practices relating to the extension of credit under an open end consumer credit plan.” Coburn saw his opportunity and attached a totally unrelated amendment that now allows individuals to carry loaded firearms in National Parks (up until that point National Parks had astronomically low violent crime and homicide rates). “This common-sense measure, offered by Senator Tom Coburn,” said the NRA, “gives law-abiding gun owners the option of protecting themselves in our federal parks and refuges.”

    Curiously, the recent ethics probe involving former Senator John Ensign has revealed that Senator Coburn played an integral role in covering up Ensign’s extramarital affair. According to the report of the Senate Ethics Committee, after confronting Ensign about the affair, Coburn became the intermediary between Ensign and his lover’s husband, Doug Hampton. Coburn allegedly negotiated the payment made by Ensign’s family to Hampton down from $8 million to $2.8 million. When the affair was finally over, Coburn participated in discussions regarding how to relocate the Hamptons to Colorado and provide them with money for their transition.

    In speaking about congressional ethics, Coburn has stated, “I believe disclosure and transparency is the best disinfectant against corruption because I trust the wisdom of the electorate far more than I trust politicians.” Apparently, he didn’t get his own memo.

  3. Former Senator Larry Craig (R-ID): Former Senator Larry Craig has served as a member of the NRA’s Board of Directors since 1983. He was the floor leader in the Senate who shepherded the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” to passage in 2005. This legislation gave the gun industry unprecedented immunity from civil lawsuits based on claims of negligence and has denied countless victims and survivors of gun violence their day in court.

    In May 2006, NRA-ILA awarded Craig the Harlon B. Carter Legislative Achievement Award, “the Institute’s highest honor.” As he presented Craig with the award, NRA-ILA President Chris Cox stated, "We'd be here until the early morning hours if I told you everything that this freedom fighter has done for all of us over the years."

    On June 11, 2007, Craig was arrested in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport for lewd conduct when he solicited an undercover police officer for sexual activity. Craig initially claimed he was innocent, but then pled guilty. For his behavior, Craig was harshly criticized by none other than Senator John Ensign, who called him, "embarrassing not only to himself and his family but to the United States Senate." Craig served out his remaining Senate term, but did not seek another term in November 2008.

    Perhaps most disturbing about Craig is his hypocrisy. He was an aggressive opponent of gay rights during his years in the Senate. He voted “yes” to implement the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for the U.S. military, which led to the dismissal of thousands of gay service members. Even after his guilty plea, he told one constituent, “It is unacceptable to risk the lives of American soldiers and sailors merely to accommodate the sexual lifestyles of certain individuals.”

  4. Senator David Vitter (R-LA): Senator David Vitter has a long history of doing the NRA’s business. In July 2006 Vitter attached an amendment to the FY 2007 Department Of Homeland Security Appropriations Act to prohibit the confiscation of privately held firearms during a national emergency or natural disaster. The impetus behind the amendment was a conspiracy theory developed by the NRA about the mass confiscation of firearms in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. In truth, private investigators hired by the NRA could only locate 75 gun owners who would claim their guns had been taken without good cause. The reality of Katrina was that citizens who remained in the city following the flood were quite well armed, and in some cases preyed on those moving through their neighborhoods to evacuation staging areas.

    In February 2008, Vitter (along with Senator Larry Craig) blocked the confirmation of Michael J. Sullivan as head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), claiming (with no apparent evidence) that Sullivan had been "overly aggressive" in enforcing gun laws during his term as the Acting Director of ATF.

    By then, however, Vitter’s own reputation had been tarnished. In July 2007, his phone number was included in a published list of phone records of Pamela Martin & Associates. The company was owned by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "D.C. Madam" who was later convicted of running a prostitution ring. Vitter and his lawyers then sought permission from the Federal Election Commission to use campaign funds to pay for significant legal and public relations expenses. He later apologized to his wife, family and the state of Louisiana.

    Ironically, Vitter was initially elected to Congress after Rep. Bob Livingston resigned following an adultery scandal. At that time, Vitter exclaimed, "It's obviously a tremendous loss for the state. I think Livingston's stepping down makes a very powerful argument that Clinton should resign as well and move beyond this mess”—a reference to the Monica Lewinski scandal. Vitter has yet to move beyond his own mess and remains in office to this day.

  5. Former Representative Mark Souder (R-IN): The NRA was proud to announce that Rep. Mark Souder was the sponsor of the House version of the “Second Amendment Enforcement Act” in April 2010. The bill sought to legalize assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, 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.

    Just one month later, Souder announced he would resign from Congress after his affair with a female staffer, Tracy Meadows Jackson, came to public light. "I wish I could have been a better example," Souder stated. "In this poisonous environment of Washington, D.C., any personal failing is seized upon, often twisted, for political gain.” The situation must have been terribly embarrassing for Souder: He was elected as a family values Conservative in 1994.

Who will be the next NRA champion on Capitol Hill to “celebrate American values”? Only time will tell...

March 28, 2011

The Truth About Guns in Switzerland

In Switzerland—a nation in which a “well regulated Militia” still plays a leading role in national defense—guns are a hot issue. A February referendum on new gun policy proposals quickly turned into a national debate on Switzerland’s gun culture and citizen/soldier tradition. The resulting dialogue in this landlocked nation of mountains and lakes has been fascinating and shed light on some long-perpetuated myths about Switzerland’s gun laws.

Responding to Tragedy
In 2007, a broad alliance of approximately 80 NGOs launched the referendum effort with the backing of center-left political parties in the Swiss government. The referendum called for militia firearms, which are now stored at home, to be stored in public arsenals. It also called for a national gun registry and a ban on the sale of fully automatic weapons and pump-action shotguns. Jacques de Haller, the president of the Swiss Medical Association, described the referendum as follows: “It is about public health and suicide prevention. This is our core business, to save lives ... As we learn from observations in England, Scotland, Australia and Canada we can conclude that there is a correlation between stricter gun laws and fewer suicide cases with firearms. There is a lower suicide rate altogether.” Criminology professor Martin Killias of Zurich University added, “I believe that if the initiative was accepted and the guns would have to be deposited in arsenals, gun violence would decrease.”

Opponents of the referendum argued that its proposals would undermine trust in the nation’s citizen army. The Swiss government openly worried that soldiers wouldn’t complete mandatory militia target practice if their guns weren’t handy. Right wing groups appealed to anti-immigrant feeling in the country, telling Swiss they had better remain armed against foreign criminals.

The pro-gun Swiss lobbying group Pro-Tell, for their part, sounded more like America’s National Rifle Association (NRA). “No gun law will ever stop the crazy man from doing outrageous things,” they counseled. Then gun rights activists in America interjected themselves into the debate with customary hyperbole: “If this rush to disarmament continues, Swiss citizens may awake one morning to find that an airborne army has taken control of their country.”

In truth—referendum or no referendum—Switzerland’s gun laws have been progressively tightening over the previous decade, in large part due to several high-profile cases of suicide and homicide. One such incident that alarmed the Swiss public was a 2006 murder-suicide involving champion skier Corinne Rey-Bellet. Rey-Bellet’s husband killed her and her brother with his militia rifle before turning the gun on himself. Then, three days before the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, a Swiss man opened fire with his army rifle at a hotel restaurant in Baden, killing one and wounding four.

According to the Small Arms Survey, Switzerland ranks fourth in terms of gun ownership among nations, with 46 guns per 100 people. An estimated 600,000 Swiss citizens engage in target shooting as a sport. There are consequences to this gun proliferation, however: Switzerland and Finland—another country with a high rate of gun ownership—typically compete for the highest annual rate of gun death in Western Europe.

It was a question of national identity
A January poll indicated that 52% of Swiss citizens supported the gun policy referendum, with only 39% against it. But opponents of the referendum closed that gap quickly through grassroots organizing and successful message framing. When the Swiss finally voted on the referendum on February 13, it failed to pass, with 56.3% of voters and 20 of the 26 Swiss cantons (member states) rejecting it.

Swissinfo.ch read the result this way: “Opponents of a motion to tighten Switzerland’s gun laws succeeded by framing the debate as a loss of freedom, security, values and tradition.” “A gun in the cellar has become a metaphor for a traditional, well-fortified and independent Switzerland,” said the St. Galler Tagblatt.

Daniel Mockli, a security expert at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, expanded on the latter point: “This is a country where you are both a citizen and a soldier. We have a militia here and the gun reflects a sense of responsibility and trust given you by the state. Here the debate on guns is about national security, whereas in the U.S. it is about protecting yourself.”

Dora Andres, the president of Switzerland’s sports shooting association, alluded to Swiss fears of a “nanny state”: “Switzerland is different. In many countries, the government doesn't trust its citizens and feels it has to protect them. In Switzerland, because we have a system of popular referendums, the state has to have faith in its citizens."

But ultimately, even for those on the far right wing of the debate, the vote was a referendum on the Swiss military establishment. The right wing Swiss People’s Party celebrated the vote by declaring that, “A disarmed army is a weakened army. The Swiss people have recognized this. With today’s’ 'no' on the weapons initiative, they have clearly rejected those army abolitionists.”

Switzerland’s “Draconian” Laws
What was conspicuously absent from Swiss reaction to the referendum was any suggestion that it was an affirmation of the right to individual self-defense.

In the United States, the Second Amendment’s “well-regulated Militia,” which today is maintained by the states and federal government in the form of the National Guard, has been mythologized by the gun lobby into a loosely regulated system of individual gun ownership that contributes nothing whatsoever to the “common defense.” Aggressive lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA) led the conservative wing of the Supreme Court to overturn 200 years of precedent in 2008 and assert that one need not serve in any militia to enjoy a broad right to keep and bear arms. The NRA has been largely successful in convincing legislators and jurists that access to guns should be completely unfettered by any type of obligation to country or one’s fellow citizens.

That’s not the case in Switzerland, where members of the militia and private citizens alike are tightly regulated in regards to gun ownership. Despite NRA claims like, “young adults in Zurich are subject to minimal gun control,” the truth is that Switzerland has very strict gun laws that American gun rights groups would consider “tyrannical.”

For starters, it’s important to differentiate between military and private gun ownership...

In Switzerland, all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 30 are conscripted for three months and issued either an assault rifle or a 9mm pistol (the automatic or rapid-fire function is removed from these firearms so they fire only in semiautomatic mode) after completing basic military training. These firearms are kept in the home and are to be used only for military purposes, not for sports shooting or personal defense. After initial training, members of the militia are required to do three or four weeks of military service a year until they have served a total of 260 days or reached age 34. Additionally, a law enacted in 2008 requires all army ammunition issued to militia members to be stored in a central arsenal. This citizen’s militia complements a small number of full-time military personnel to constitute Switzerland’s army.

Many Swiss men buy their service firearms after they finish military service. Since January 2010, however, they are required to obtain a permit to do so, and must provide some justification for keeping the gun.

[Editor’s note: Swiss women may volunteer to serve in the armed forces and can now join all units, including combat troops. Currently 1,050 women are active-duty members of the Swiss military.]

Laws governing the private ownership of firearms are equally strict. In 1999, a federal law on arms, arms accessories, and ammunition (the Arms Act) came into effect. The Arms Act requires a permit for each transaction involving firearms or relevant parts of firearms purchased from an authorized dealer's shop. Permits for purchasing firearms are issued by the cantons. Buyers are carefully screened and have to meet a number of requirements (i.e., minimum 18 years of age, absence of any apparent risk to the buyer or third persons, no entry in the Register of Convictions for violent crimes and/or misdemeanors, etc.). Subsequent transfers of firearms among private individuals have to be documented through a written contract, which must be kept for at least ten years. Additionally, several cantons require citizens to register firearms.

Any person wishing to carry a gun in public must obtain a separate, special permit from their canton. The screening process is essentially the same as for the purchase of firearms. In addition, applicants must demonstrate a legitimate need to protect themselves, other persons, or goods against specific risks. Applicants must further pass two tests, one on the correct handling of firearms and one on legislation concerning the use of firearms. Permits are valid for five years. Certain exceptions to these rules are made for hunters, those performing military service, and those participating in shooting events.

In the United States, military weapons are more strictly controlled than in Switzerland. The National Guard and the regular Army are armed by the federal government and service members are not allowed—under any circumstances—to bring their weapons home or use them for personal self-defense.

But it’s in the laws for private firearms ownership where the you can really see the real contrast with the Swiss system. In an overwhelming majority of states in the United States:

  • Individuals with misdemeanor convictions (including for violent offenses) can legally buy guns and obtain permits to carry concealed handguns.

  • Those obtaining concealed handgun permits are not required to demonstrate any specific need (or threat) to carry a weapon in public.

  • Law enforcement officials have no individual discretion in denying gun purchases or concealed handgun permits.

  • Private sales/transfers of firearms are completely unregulated, with no background checks or paperwork required.

  • Only a handful of states require licensing and registration, and typically just for handguns.

It is no surprise that the United States has an astronomically higher gun death rate than any other industrialized democracy. The critical concept of civic duty—which is such a central element of Switzerland’s gun culture—has been eviscerated in the United States over time by the gun lobby.

A Bold Persistence
In Switzerland, the national debate about guns is not likely to go away anytime soon. Despite the failure of the recent referendum, its proponents have no intention of giving up their campaign. Ebo Aebischer, a Reformed Church minister who works with families of suicide victims, said, “We will be proposing a professional [rather than a conscript-based] military. If successful, such an initiative would fulfill the demands of the current one: army weapons would no longer be allowed in the home and the expensive shooting practices would drop by the wayside. That way, the savings arising from the abolition of shooting practices could be invested in suicide prevention.”

Perhaps more importantly, younger Swiss are the most likely of any demographic to favor additional curbs on gun ownership. One president of a pistol shooters association, perhaps indicating what the future holds, recently said the average age in Swiss gun clubs is now “closer to 50 than to 40.”

March 15, 2011

The Forgotten Guns in the Workplace Tragedy

In recent years, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has authored and successfully advocated for legislation to allow employees to bring firearms—including handguns and assault weapons—with them to work. Such laws have been enacted in at least nine states and typically require employees to keep their guns secured in their vehicle in company parking lots. In passing this legislation, state legislatures have ignored studies that show: 1) Approximately 81% of workplace homicides are committed with a firearm, and; 2) Workplaces where guns are permitted are five to seven times more likely to be the site of a worker homicide. Additionally, the NRA is now asking lawmakers to support legislation that would allow individuals to sue their employers if they are asked questions about whether they bring firearms to work.

A horrific tragedy that was almost totally ignored by the media and American public illustrates the importance of preventing workplace violence before the first shot is ever fired—in part because untrained civilians cannot be depended upon to respond to such crisis situations effectively.

“A very gruesome scene”
January 7, 2010 started like any other day at ABB, Inc., a firm that makes large transformers for power utilities in St. Louis, Missouri. But just after dawn, as workers from the night shift departed and employees arriving for daytime hours settled in, everything changed.

It was 17 degrees and snowing with 34 MPH wind gusts when ABB employee Timothy Hendron drove up to the front gate of the plant in a Nissan Altima at approximately 6:30 AM. On his hips in holsters were two handguns: a Hi Point .45 caliber semiautomatic and a Hi Point .40 caliber semiautomatic. In the back seat were two long guns: a Tri Star .12 gauge pump action shotgun and a Romarm Cugir 7.62 x. 39 caliber semiautomatic AK-47 rifle. Hendron wore a camouflage storage pouch around his waist stuffed with ammunition. Attached to his belt were additional ammunition magazines. Guard Shakira Johnson, who was manning the security booth that morning, noticed nothing unusual and waved him through the gate.

Hendron parked near the plant’s loading dock and entered a building where a group of employees were gathered for a morning meeting. Hendron immediately leveled his shotgun and opened fire on this group, which included employees Jerry Brown, Rick Lawrence, Derrick Harris, Vickie Wilson, Tony Edwards and Darrell Buckley. They scattered in terror. Most of them ran up a flight of stairs and eventually made their way to the roof of the building. Brown sustained a gunshot wound to his leg, but still managed to escape with this group.

Buckley was shot in the back by a second shotgun blast as he fled toward the office of supervisor Cory Wilson. Buckley and Wilson, 27, hid in a storage closet in the office as Hendron approached. When Hendron reached the office, he fired 30 rounds with his AK-47 rifle through the door of the closet, striking Wilson fatally and wounding Buckley in the abdomen and chest. Buckley managed to call both his wife and 911 as he lay bleeding. He told police he could hear Wilson struggling to breathe, until ultimately the breathing stopped altogether.

After shooting up Wilson’s office, Hendron moved to a different area of the building, where he shot Keith Garner and Terry Mabry in the leg. Hendron then stepped outside onto the sidewalk next to the building and opened fire on employees attempting to escape down an access road in their vehicles. He wounded John Green in the wrist and fatally shot Carlton Carter, who slumped lifeless over his steering wheel.

By this point, St. Louis Police Department officers had responded to the scene after multiple 911 calls. They observed Green and Carter’s cars driving erratically while under fire, but didn’t know whether they were involved in a gunfight with one another or victims of a separate shooter. At this point an officer called in to dispatch to instruct other responders to pull back from the plant “because the shooter was using an assault rifle and his position could not be determined.”

Meanwhile, after shooting Green and Carter, Hendron spotted Stephen Sharp II and Matt Elder carrying Terry Mabry (who couldn’t walk due to his wounded leg) across the parking lot in an attempt to move him to cover. Sharp and Elder were forced to leave Mabry when they heard Hendron’s gunshots closing in behind them. Sharp decided to run to his car to retrieve his .380-caliber Walther PPKS semiautomatic handgun.

Hendron rounded a corner and spotted Mabry lying on the ground. ABB employee Mark Campbell was watching Hendron from a distance while hiding behind a car in the parking lot. He saw Hendron stand directly over the wounded Mabry and shoot him twice with his assault rifle. Hendron then leaned down near Mabry’s face and screamed before shooting him three more times. Another witness stated that what Hendron yelled was “I got you now! You’re going to get what you deserve!

By this time, Sharp had retrieved his semiautomatic pistol and taken cover behind a car. As Hendron fired 10 to 15 rounds at guard Cordin Hudson inside the security post, Sharp took aim. He fired eight rounds at Hendron—missing every time—before running out of ammunition. Sharp then left cover, sprinting across the parking lot to get away. Hendron fired on Sharp, critically wounding him in the abdomen and bringing him to the ground. Sharp laid still and played dead in fear that Hendron would shoot him again if he moved. The tactic saved his life.

Hendron then walked back into the ABB plant, entered a private office, and took his own life.

When police entered the building minutes later, SWAT commander Michael Deeba found Hendron seated by a desk with a gunshot wound under his chin and one of his handguns near his feet. Hendron’s assault rifle and shotgun were sitting on the desk. Deeba, taking no chances at this point, handcuffed Hendron’s hands to the arms of the chair he was sitting in.

The police later collected ballistic evidence indicating that Hendron fired approximately 115 rounds during the rampage. The plant was pockmarked everywhere with bullet holes. Hendron had killed three ABB employees and wounded five (two critically).

“We should have seen it coming”
The subsequent police investigation of the shooting painted a portrait of a disgruntled employee turned mass murderer.

Hendron’s co-workers recalled that he used to be a “happy-go-lucky guy” who would crack jokes and play billiards with co-workers at local bars/restaurants. Over the past five or six years, however, Hendron had become withdrawn and stopped socializing. In the words of one co-worker, he simply “clammed up.”

Many recalled that Hendron’s behavior had changed after the shift he supervised at ABB was terminated. Hendron was relocated to an administrative position, but didn’t get along with his new boss, so he opted to return to the assembly line alongside individuals he used to supervise. Later, he was passed over as supervisor when his old shift was restored. A much younger man, Cory Wilson, got the job (which made investigators speculate that Hendron had specifically targeted Wilson in the shooting). By this point, Hendron was acting “despondent,” “agitated” and “extreme.”

Kathleen Hendron further explained that her husband felt "ostracized" at ABB for trying to start a union and participating in a lawsuit against the company over its pension plan. She told police he was worried about his impending performance as a witness in the case. He was scheduled to testify in Kansas City on January 11, 2010. Hendron was also paranoid—and became convinced that people from ABB were coming to his property and “messing” with his car and home.

Hendron bought his .45 caliber handgun on January 23, 2008 and the .40 caliber handgun on April 4, 2008. The AK-47 rifle and shotgun were purchased the day before his shooting rampage on January 6, 2010. There is no waiting period for firearm purchases in Missouri.

In hindsight, ABB employee Jeff Ray told police, “We should have seen it coming.” Others concurred, saying they knew Hendron was “capable of doing something like this.”

Wolves, Lions and Lambs
Recently, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre told a Conservative Political Action Conference audience that "the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." LaPierre called for an “armed citizenry” to take back our nation’s streets and communities because—as he sees it—everyone is safer when "the wolves can't tell the difference between the lions and the lambs."

The inference is that would-be murderers will be deterred if they have reason to believe that a potential victim could be armed. Or, if killers can’t be deterred, armed citizens will rise up to shoot and stop them.

It didn’t quite work that way at the ABB plant on January 7, 2010. Stephen Sharp II was able to get his handgun, take aim at Hendron, and fire eight shots. But he missed every single time, and the “lion” quickly became a “lamb” as an enraged Hendron turned his gun on Sharp. One witness recalled Hendron shouting at Sharp, “I’m going to get you. You shot at me. I’m going to get you!” Sharp was critically wounded by Hendron and had to play dead until police arrived to help him.

Nonetheless, the NRA actively pushed a guns in the workplace bill in the Missouri legislature in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. It passed the Missouri House before being shelved in the Senate.

An Ounce of Prevention
The problem with relying on a “good guy” to shoot a “bad guy” is that mass shootings are characterized by panic and pure chaos. The potential for collateral damage in a crossfire is enormous and the killer will always define the rules of engagement.

A preferable strategy is to make sure the shooting never starts in the first place. There is a lot more our country could be doing to prevent homicidal individuals like Timothy Hendron from acquiring small arsenals (in this case two handguns, a shotgun, an AK-47 and hundreds of rounds of ammunition).

For years, dating back to the Brady Bill, the NRA has opposed waiting periods for firearm purchases. In this case, a waiting period could have made Hendron think twice before committing mass murder. The fact that he was able to acquire an assault rifle and a shotgun in a matter of minutes the day before the shooting left him little time to reflect on the consequences of his planned actions.

The ABB shooting rampage was also facilitated by the immediate access that Hendron had to military-style weaponry. Even had Hendron been a prohibited purchaser under federal law, he could have easily acquired the assault rifle and high-capacity ammunition magazines used in the shooting through an unregulated private sale in Missouri—no background check, no paperwork, cash and carry. Hendron’s weapon of choice—a semiautomatic AK-47 with banana clips—not only made it easier for him to wound and kill multiple victims, but also prevented responding law enforcement officers from immediately entering the plant to subdue him. First responders had to wait for a SWAT team with an armored vehicle because they feared they would be outgunned.

The ABB massacre joins a growing list of mass shootings made more lethal due to assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. And the NRA continues to fight all efforts to prohibit such items from being sold in the civilian market.

“I feel like my civil liberties are being taken away from me.”
ABB is certainly not the only company to experience the trauma of workplace violence. A 2008 report from the ASIS Foundation found that workplace violence affects more than two million workers in the United States each year and accounts for about 20% of all violent crime.

The House of Delegates of the American Bar Association passed a resolution critical of laws allowing employees to bring their guns to the workplace, noting that such laws conflict not only with traditional private property rights, but also with employers’ obligations under federal law to provide a safe workplace.

Unfortunately, many Americans do not feel safe at work. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence recently received the following emails from concerned individuals that live in states that allow guns in the workplace:

I am a manager for a glass shop. The owner of the company I work for has recently hired a former employee back as a tech for me to manage. He has informed me that he previously fired the employee due to complications stemming from an addiction to prescription pain medication. This employee now comes to work daily carrying a small semiautomatic pistol. He makes no attempt to "conceal" his weapon and regularly carries it in his waistband or sets it out in the open near his workspace or in the open in the company vehicle. I have voiced my concern with my employer several times, but to no avail. My employer does not confront the issue. I thought the idea behind a concealed weapon was that no one was to see or know that you had the weapon. Also upon reading I found that employers must ensure a safe work environment and as they cannot ban an employee from bringing a weapon to work, must ensure that the employee keeps the weapon "locked up in their vehicle in the parking lot."

I work at a fortune 500 company in Florida and here in the Gunshine State citizens could basically do whatever they want. After the recent events in Arizona, I am scared to work at my employer because at my employer we deal with not just angry customers, but a very intense atmosphere. Also, I don’t only work inside the building, but I work as a repair man for which I deal with even angrier people because they are paying for something that isn’t working correctly. In the atmosphere we live in now, I feel like my civil liberties are being taken away from me. Not sure what to do.

No American should have to go to work and fear for their safety. Peace of mind starts with a workplace that has a no-weapons policy. In the words of the ASIS Foundation: “Enforcing a no-weapons policy for employees as allowed by law is a fundamental component of establishing effective countermeasures [to workplace violence]. Weapons policies should be written, made known to all employees, and consistently enforced. Employer policies prohibiting firearms have been shown to reduce the incidence of homicide in the workplace, and they demonstrate a commitment to safety.”

But equally important are policies that keep individuals who are unstable or violent from stockpiling firearms. President Obama put it well in an editorial he wrote for the Arizona Daily Star: “I'm willing to bet that responsible, law-abiding gun owners agree that...an unbalanced man shouldn't be able to buy a gun so easily; that there's room for us to have reasonable laws that uphold liberty, ensure citizen safety and are fully compatible with a robust Second Amendment ... Porous background checks are bad for police officers, for law-abiding citizens and for the sellers themselves. If we're serious about keeping guns away from someone who's made up his mind to kill, then we can't allow a situation where a responsible seller denies him a weapon at one store, but he effortlessly buys the same gun someplace else. Clearly, there’s more we can do to prevent gun violence.”

Yes sir, there is.