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November 8, 2012

From Young Man To Young Man

[The following blog is by CSGV intern Jack Anthony.]

“My mom pushes me to do better, she always tells me to never settle. I think the kids that are on the street not doing anything with their lives don’t get the type of support they need from family. They probably don’t have anyone to look up to.” - Dajae Coleman, “My Belief Statement”

On the night of September 24, Dajae Coleman, 14, was fatally shot in the chest as he was walking home from a party less than a mile from his home in Evanston, Illinois. A fight had broken out at the party, supposedly involving the female cousin of the shooter, Wesley Woodson III. She texted him to say she had been in the altercation. He arrived wielding a 9mm and gunned down Dajae in what prosecutors are calling it a “case of mistaken identity.”

Woodson, 20, has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm without bail. According to Evanston Police Commander Jay Parrot, “Woodson has gang affiliations and this was a retaliatory act upon an innocent group of teens with no gang affiliations.”

Dajae was described by Evanston Township High basketball coach as a “tremendous athlete and a tremendous person…a guy who led by example.” Dajae was also a leader in the classroom. To be a good student at Evanston Township High is no small order. 100 percent of the class of 2011 scored above the national average on the ACT and 43 of the 693 members of the current senior class received National Merit Awards. Dajae’s middle school teacher Willa Williams wrote, “Dajae had dreams, Dajae worked hard all the time, and Dajae was first true to himself and his family.” Finally, when Dajae wasn’t studying or playing sports, he held a job at a local community center.

Dajae’s father, Richard Coleman, described his son in the following words: “He wasn’t one of those guys. He wasn’t someone who you’d think would get killed like this. But really, in the society we’re living in, he actually was one of the good ones, the innocent ones that leave early. He told me he wanted to be an engineer or maybe a doctor, I told him that’s a lot of work. And he said, ‘You know me dad, I can do it.”

I am now 18 years old, the time when teenage aspirations begin to turn into a working reality. Dajae was about to seize this opportunity. He was a great student at a great school, the kind of kid that politicians claim we need to invest in. He was doing everything right in his life. Why was it cut short? Because he was near a petty argument he had nothing to do with? It’s time for politicians to talk about the flaws in our gun laws that abetted this tragedy.

In a phone interview, Commander Parrot told me that the 9mm gun used to kill Dajae has yet to be recovered. “There are a few ways these gang members get guns,” he said. “In Chicago, if you have a license you can buy a gun, but some sometimes guns are stolen and they scratch off the serial number; sometimes guns are transferred through straw purchases; and sometimes they buy them in other states and bring them over [into Illinois].”

As commander Parrot suggested, many of Illinois’ crime guns do indeed come from out of state. A 2011 study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns shows that Indiana and Mississippi are the two main exporters. Most of the crime guns recovered in Chicago, however, are originally bought in Illinois. Just one county– Cook County—is estimated as being the source of 45% of the state’s crime guns (based on a study from 2008 to 2012 by the University of Chicago Crime Lab). And the biggest supplier in Cook County is Chuck’s Gun Store, estimated as the source of about one in five crime guns in Illinois. Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab said that the data “suggests a key strategy in keep guns off the street is for law enforcement agencies to target the local gun stores most likely to sell firearms to straw purchasers.”

Given this data, it’s shocking how little Illinois does to crack down on illegal gun trafficking. For example, in Illinois there is no limit on bulk purchases of handguns—which are popular among straw purchasers. Residents are not required to report firearm thefts, or register the guns they buy. There is no regulation on private firearm sales in Illinois—residents can sell guns to one another without conducting background checks or keeping records of sale. Finally, there is no state-level regulation of gun dealers in Illinois and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—due to a lack of manpower—is only able to inspect the inventories of federally licensed firearms dealers once every ten years on average. Does Illinois really expect us to believe it’s doing everything in its power to stop gun crime?

On a human level, from young man to young man, I’m writing about Dajae Coleman so that all his talent, his promise, is not diminished by the horrible act that stole his life. In the slaughter of this young man, we see a broken promise of politicians. A principal function of our government is the establishment of justice and the preservation of “domestic tranquility.” How many more victims of gun violence will it take before we start to realize that life is liberty? No one is free who has to worry about being shot on his way home. A society in which thugs and vigilantes establish their own code of “justice” is no society our Founders would approve of. Nor a society that any of us should accept.

Dajae did everything he could to make his life and those around him better. Shouldn’t we hold our elected officials to the same standard?

February 27, 2012

Where’s the Part About the Guns?

Normally when a representative for the National Rifle Association (NRA) visits the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), we’re talking about NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre, and he’s there to promote a range of bizarre conspiracy theories concerning gun confiscation and the Obama Administration. Over the years, Wayne and the NRA have learned that there’s no better fundraising tool than good ol’ fearmongering. This year, however, a far more interesting and revealing moment occurred at CPAC when NRA President David Keene presented Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli with the “Defender of Freedom Award” on behalf of the NRA and the American Conservative Union (for which Keene served as Chairman from 1984-2011).

To put it lightly, Ken Cuccinelli has been a controversial figure since entering Virginia politics in 2002. In the words of the Washington Post, “Mr. Cuccinelli has profited from an affability and quick wit that have tended to mask his extremist views. As a lawmaker in Richmond, he has displayed contempt for non-English speakers; for those who care about global warming; and for the First Amendment. Many of his fellow Republicans regard him as occupying the far-right fringe of the party, the ultimate small tenter."

The NRA’s president saw things quite differently when he honored Cuccinelli on February 9th, however. Before bestowing him with a document signed by Founding Fathers James Madison and James Monroe, David Keene called Cuccinelli “a man of faith … a man…healthily suspicious of government in all circumstances … a man who has never turned his back on his values, has never turned his back on his beliefs, and has never refused to stand up when principle demanded that he do so.” “He has never, in fact, varied from the beliefs that motivate him and motivated our Founders,” said Keene. Keene also praised Cuccinelli for filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of “Obamacare” (i.e., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010). The NRA president made absolutely no mention of the Second Amendment or Cuccinelli’s record on the gun issue.

Curiously, neither did Cuccinelli. After thanking the NRA for the award, Cuccinelli launched into a bizarre tirade on a host of issues that—at first glance—have nothing to do with the NRA’s mission or political agenda.

First, Cuccinelli suggested that the Constitution shouldn’t have been ratified, remarking, “James Monroe voted against the U.S. Constitution because he didn’t think it was cautious enough with respect to federal power. Seems like he had a crystal ball, one might think. But that’s the role of states when the federal government oversteps its boundaries. And the worst example of course is the health care bill [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act …signed by the president on March 23, 2010. And about 34 minutes later, give or take, we filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia … Seventeen blocks to the east, 235 years to the day, before we filed that suit, and before the president signed that bill, Patrick Henry gave his ‘Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death’ speech … And that seemed very appropriate, given that that legislation represents one of the greatest legislative invasions of liberty in the lifetime of anyone in this room. And that suit we filed is not about health care. It’s about liberty … We know that it has to be stopped. Certainly the Founders would think so.”

Turning to the topic of the environment, Cuccinelli said, “[W]e sued the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]—which I have taken to calling the Employment Prevention Agency, because they are so good at that—for their greenhouse gas endangerment finding … Virginia and Texas will argue on behalf of 16 states that they broke the law .. And when the EPA said that the CO2 that you are exhaling right now—let’s all annoy [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson together [exhales loudly]. Hi, Lisa. When they passed that regulation in violation of the law they brought on enormous consequences, many of which they hadn’t calculated and which they said they hadn’t calculated. Those are the economic consequences. The only science behind that regulation is political science.”

Finally, Cuccinelli directed his wrath at organized labor: “You all are familiar with the National Labor Relations Board’s assault on South Carolina and Boeing. Make no mistake about it, that is an assault on the right to work…the right to hold a job without being coerced into joining a union … We have never seen such an across-the-board assault on the rule of law by any administration in the lifetime of anyone in this room. It has never happened. The Constitution gets not no respect. States gets no respect. The courts get no respect. Federal law itself that they find inconvenient gets no respect. And when we don’t have enough politicians in Washington who adhere to the constitution and the rule of law, state attorneys general become the last line of defense.”

Not a single word about guns…

One might be amazed at how blatant this whole episode was, but the truth is that Cuccinelli’s extreme views on a host of non-gun-related issues are in lockstep with members of the NRA leadership. A recent examination of the NRA by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence revealed that the organization is largely lead by individuals with a vested interest in conservative politics—including social and economic issues. Whether it’s fighting the advance of LGBT rights, engaging in immigrant bashing, or supporting the “1%”, the NRA never met a progressive cause it wasn’t prepared to gun down.

While superficially bipartisan, the NRA is closely aligned with the most extreme elements in the Republican Party and has brought a number of the GOP’s most influential operatives into positions of power within their organization. The GOP and NRA are now locked in a symbiotic relationship where Republican legislators advance the NRA’s extreme agenda while the NRA musters its hardcore supporters to serve as attack dogs for a wide-ranging conservative agenda. Honoring Cuccinelli—a charismatic pied-piper of the far-right wing movement—makes that job that much easier.

January 31, 2012

Gun Politics (as Usual) in D.C.

[This blog is a report by CSGV Director of Communications Ladd Everitt, who attended a D.C. Council hearing yesterday on the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.”]

Yesterday, I attended a public hearing of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary regarding a new piece of gun-related legislation, Bill 19-614, the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.” The hearing provided a perfect snapshot of the way gun politics operate in the District, with the usual cast of characters in lead roles on the pro-gun side.

Everyone is familiar with the District of Columbia’s tough gun laws, but the “Firearms Amendment Act” would actually address many of the criticisms of pro-gun activists and eliminate some existing regulations. Specifically, Bill 19-614 would:

  • Allow D.C. residents to take their guns to firearms safety and training courses before they have officially registered them with the city.

  • Eliminate the vision testing requirement to register a firearm. Those who are legally blind would still be prohibited from registering firearms.

  • Accept military training, or the possession of a state firearms license for which comparable training was required, to satisfy the District’s mandatory training requirement to register a firearm.

  • Repeal the requirement that registered handguns undergo ballistics identification testing.

  • Require the Metropolitan Police to take photographs for use in the registration application process, rather than requiring applicants to supply their own photographs.

All of these changes were initiated by Judiciary Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who sought to accommodate pro-gun activists in the District after meeting with them personally to hear their concerns. You never would have known that sitting through yesterday’s hearing, however. Pro-gun activists spent the morning and afternoon browbeating Mendelson and issuing additional demands in a manner that was frequently impolite and sometimes downright rude.

First up to testify was Emily "I'm meh on voting rights" Miller, the Senior Editor of the Washington Times Opinion pages (which embrace even the most bizarre conspiracy theories perpetuated by the NRA) . Miller has become something of a cause célèbre in the pro-gun movement because of her “Emily Gets Her Gun” blog at the Times website. The blog basically gives Miller a platform to complain about D.C. gun laws ad nauseam. But there are fun features for people who really like weapons, too, like gun porn photos and a poll that allows them to vote on which semiautomatic handgun Emily should buy to take down “bad guys” with.

Miller spent about 20 minutes at the hearing complaining about the process needed to satisfy the training requirement for registering handguns in the District, which is strange, because she successfully completed that training more than two months ago, and Bill 19-614 would make it even easier for future applicants to do so. Nonetheless she made it clear to Chairman Mendelson that the list of 46 certified firearms instructors supplied by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) was grossly insufficient. Why? Because she did not want to travel to the home/office of one of these “armed strange men” and put herself at personal risk to undergo the training. [Miller was presumably referring to pro-gun activist Ricardo Royal, one of the 46 who was on hand to testify.]

Let me get this straight… Miller is scared to spend a few hours with a firearms instructor that’s been certified by the MPDC (i.e., multiple, thorough background checks), but thinks she’ll be safer if the “strange men” of Washington, D.C. can arm themselves under far less stringent oversight? At the hearing, Miller praised Virginia laws that allow someone to walk out of a store with a handgun in just 10 minutes, no training required. “It’s much easier to shoot a gun than drive a car,” she told Mendelson. “Anyone can do it.” Except perhaps Miller. She inadvertently revealed that she has sometimes violated the basic rules of firearms safety that were taught to her by instructors (e.g., by placing her finger on the trigger of a gun before she was prepared to fire it).

Miller also showed little grasp of facts, boasting at one point that “gun ownership is at its highest [level] in 30 years.” In reality, data from the General Social Survey tells us exactly the opposite—that only one in five Americans now owns a firearm.

Finally, Miller apparently associates with criminals. “Anecdotally, a lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I have a gun, I don’t register it,’” she told Mendelson. So much for that “law-abiding citizens” thing the NRA likes to shout about.

Back to the topic of “strange men,” the next pro-gun activist to testify, James Collier, told Mendelson that he wanted the city to legalize the civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle (the semiautomatic-fire-only AR-15) so he could shoot feral pigs in the swamps of South Carolina with it. No, I didn’t make that up.

George Lyon, the President of the D.C. Chapter of the Community Association for Firearms Education (CAFE), said he needed to carry a loaded handgun while walking his dog at 1:00AM. The dog wasn’t on hand to offer his own view about the wisdom of such behavior.

NRA Lifetime Member/Plaintiff Absalom Jordan compared D.C.’s elected officials to Virginians who sought to keep schools segregated from the 1950s-70s. He also falsely accused Mendelson of offering Bill 19-614 only because of the threat of gun lobby litigation—which was later rebutted by pro-gun witnesses.

But the strangest man of all is Dick Heller, the lead plaintiff in the Cato Institute lawsuit that overturned D.C.’s handgun ban in 2008 (the five Supreme Court Justices who wrote the D.C. v. Heller opinion are the same five who decided corporations have a right to free speech in Citizens United). Heller’s testimony took the form of a bizarre presentation on “Firearms Development” in which he showed Mendelson multiple home-printed photos of guns. During this presentation, Heller claimed that the AR-15 assault rifle is “the most safest rifle…to use” and proudly told a story about how his friend in West Virginia bought his five-year-old daughter a pink AR-15. Heller also expressed support for allowing D.C. residents to carry loaded, concealed handguns in public with no screening or training, including on college campuses.

Heller didn’t want to talk much about his current lawsuit against the District of Columbia, which has gone nowhere. As Daniel Vice, the Senior Attorney for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, noted at the hearing, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has upheld D.C.’s licensing/registration laws and its assault weapons ban in Heller II, writing, “none of the District’s registration requirements prevents an individual from possessing a firearm in his home or elsewhere.”

For more information on Dick Heller, visit the Heller Foundation website, where Heller supports voter suppression backed up by the threat of political violence, claims the American Nazi Party is supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, and quotes virulent racist/insurrectionist Jeff Cooper. To put it simply, the fact that longstanding, democratically-enacted gun laws in the District were overturned on this man’s behalf is nothing short of shameful.

Not a single pro-gun witness thanked Chairman Mendelson for sitting down with them, listening to their concerns, and offering the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.” They were there only to harangue him and make additional demands.

Like Mendelson, MPDC Police Chief Cathy Lanier stood in stark contrast to the pro-gunners with her willingness to listen, reach compromise, and accommodate. In her testimony at the hearing, Chief Lanier defended the city’s licensing-registration process, laying out four ways that it helps preserve public safety: 1) It allows law enforcement to verify the eligibility of firearm owners; 2) It ensures that firearm owners have a body of knowledge about D.C. gun laws and firearms safety; 3) It allows police to quickly distinguish between legal and illegal firearms in the field; 4) It helps track firearms that have been lost, stolen or used in a crime.

But Lanier also suggested several ways that the process can be made more convenient for gun owners. She said the department believes it can use information technology to eliminate subsequent visits to MPDC for background checks when registrants renew their licenses. She also was open to revisiting training requirements, suggesting that classes can be shorter and conducted at MPDC facilities. Finally, the MPDC is now providing office space for Federal Firearms Licensee Charles Sykes, so registrants no longer have to make multiple trips between his office and MPDC headquarters.

But the bottom line is that since January 2009, only 2,115 total firearms have been registered in the District of Columbia. Mendelson had it exactly right when he said at the hearing, “People in the district, it’s an urban environment, there isn’t a lot of hunting in the city … Within the culture of the city, [there is] not as much of a desire to have guns as was thought or speculated.”

We should salute Mendelson and other D.C. Council members for being willing to listen to all D.C. residents and consider all points of view, no matter how extreme. That’s democracy at work. At the same time, we should be aware that pro-gun activists do not appreciate such gestures and will not stop until they have imposed their far-right-wing political values on our city and eradicated our gun laws entirely—even if/when this involves voiding the democratic decisions of D.C. residents. Monday simply provided additional evidence of that unfortunate fact.

[To watch a full video of the hearing, click here. Dick Heller’s testimony starts at the 3:29:40 mark and is worth watching.]