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April 30, 2013

How the NRA Arms Criminals

While zealously promoting the most permissive of gun laws, the National Rifle Association (NRA) seems to at least pay lip service to the concept of keeping firearms away from dangerous people. Take for example, the words of NRA President David Keene, who says his organization wants to “keep guns out of the hands of potential killers.” But in truth not only does the NRA oppose laws that would prevent criminals from obtaining firearms in the first place, it goes a step further and supports efforts to restore “gun rights” to individuals who have lost them because of dangerous and/or violent behavior.

Here’s four ways the NRA ensures that “bad guys” will always have easy access to guns:

1) Opposition to Background Checks. Following the mass shooting at Columbine in 1999, the NRA actually supported efforts to require background checks on the private sales of firearms. Today, however, the NRA has flipped 180 degrees and adamantly opposes any and all efforts to expand background checks. Their opposition is in part due to the claim that background checks would place an undue burden on “the little guy,” meaning average law-abiding citizens. Law-abiding citizens, however, have no problems passing background checks. And approximately 90% of background checks are completed in a matter of minutes, so no “burden” exists.

Meanwhile, a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that nearly 80% of prison inmates incarcerated for gun-related crimes acquired their guns through private transactions. [U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities,” 2004; and Daniel Webster, Jon Vernick, Emma McGinty, and Ted Alcorn, “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearm Sales Laws” in “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis,” 2013, p. 110.]

We know that background checks work. Between 1994 and 2009, background checks conducted by federally licensed firearms dealers prevented nearly two million prohibited purchasers (i.e., convicted felons, those under active restraining orders for domestic abuse, dangerous mentally ill individuals, etc.) from buying guns. Still the NRA did everything in its power to make sure the recent Toomey-Manchin amendment—which would have required background checks on all private sales of firearms through “commercial” venues like gun shows and websites—failed in the Senate. The NRA’s efforts included grading all the votes on the amendment (including procedural ones) and sending a letter to Senators that called the campaign to expand background checks “misguided.”

2) Support for “Restoration” Programs. Prohibited under federal law from buying guns because of dangerous behavior? No problem, the NRA believes in second chances. In 1986, the NRA-drafted Firearm Owners Protection Act significantly altered federal law by allowing states to restore gun purchasing/ownership rights to convicted felons. Since that time, the NRA has lobbied aggressively in the states to establish such restoration programs.

Today, restoration is automatic for non-violent felons in at least 11 states. Several other states allow violent felons to petition to have their gun purchasing/ownership rights restored. The application and review process in many of these states is often superficial and deeply flawed.

For example, in 2001, three police officers in Minneapolis were shot and wounded by a convicted murderer whose gun rights had been restored automatically in 1987. He had served a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for killing his estranged wife and a family friend with a shotgun. Then there was the case of Mitchell W. Reed from the state of Washington. He was disqualified from purchasing/owning firearms after a 1984 felony cocaine conviction (he also had seven prior misdemeanor convictions, including for assault). Nonetheless, in 2003, he successfully petitioned to get his gun rights back in Snohomish County Superior Court. The following year, he began to physically abuse his wife, growing progressively more violent with each attack. He was then arrested in 2009 and charged with harassing and threatening to kill his wife’s ex-husband. While those charges were pending, he was again arrested, this time on second-degree assault charges after he beat up and tried to strangle his wife. He eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and intimidating a witness, as well as fourth-degree assault and harassment.

3) Protecting Arsenals of Domestic Abusers. The NRA also makes it difficult to remove firearms from violent individuals under active restraining orders for domestic abuse. In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which forbid most domestic abusers subject to full restraining orders from purchasing or possessing firearms. However, lobbying pressure from the NRA caused lawmakers to exclude individuals facing temporary orders of protection.

While some states like California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts do require the surrender of firearms by individuals under temporary protection orders, efforts to enact similar legislation in other states have been blocked by the NRA. The results in those states are often ugly.

For example, in 2012 Washington resident Stephanie Holten received a temporary order of protection against her ex-husband. It did not require him to surrender his guns. The day the order was filed, Holten came home with her children to find her ex-husband waiting for them with a semiautomatic rifle. Luckily, she was able to call 911 and first responders arrived before anyone was harmed. Others have not been so lucky... In July 2010, Oklahoma resident Barbara Dye received an emergency order of protection against her husband, who she was in the process of divorcing. Two weeks later, her husband shot and killed her in a parking lot with a revolver.

Guns and domestic violence are a toxic combination. Approximately a quarter of women murdered every year are murdered with a firearm by their intimate partner. According to a study in Criminal Justice Review, one out of every five women slain by an intimate partner had a protective order against their killer. Despite these tragedies, the NRA continues to shut down legislation that would mandate that those under temporary protective orders surrender their firearms.

4) Altering Standards by which Courts Evaluate Gun Laws. Having failed to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to broaden the level of scrutiny gun laws face in this country (an argument they pushed in their amicus brief in the 2008 case of D.C. v. Heller), the NRA is now pushing state courts to do so.

The NRA has already accomplished this goal in Louisiana with Amendment 2, which was passed by legislative ballot referendum in November 2012. Amendment 2 subjects gun laws to “strict scrutiny,” which is the highest level of legal scrutiny. When a law is subject to strict scrutiny, it is presumed to be unconstitutional until proven otherwise—the same level of judicial protection that the right to free speech and racial equality receive.

Only an extremist would suggest that Amendment 2 is vindicating constitutional rights intended by our Founders, however. On March 21, 2013, Orleans Parish Judge Darryl Derbigny dismissed the case of convicted felon Glen Draughter, who had been caught riding in a car with a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson and an AK-47 with a 30-round magazine. Derbigny ruled that banning felons from owning firearms is unconstitutional under the strict scrutiny standard of review required by Amendment 2.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who had promoted Amendment 2 as “an ironclad guarantee of freedom” prior to the ballot referendum, suddenly didn’t agree with what it had wrought. After Derbigny’s ruling, the Jindal administration put out a statement saying, “We disagree with the judge’s ruling. The amendment passed last session is not in conflict with Louisiana or federal law barring felons from owning guns.” The governor should have realized that it’s “buyer beware” when you let the NRA write your state’s gun laws.

The NRA doesn’t shame easily, however, and is pushing similar legislative ballot referendums in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Alabama.

With gun industry executives sitting directly on its Board of Directors, and millions of dollars rolling into its coffers every year in direct corporate contributions from the industry, the NRA is interested in one thing and one thing only: profit. And at the end of the day, the money made from a gun sale is the same whether that sale is made to a “good guy” or “bad guy.” It’s time to get the fox out of the chicken coop and allow gun policy to be written by those with a legitimate interest in the safety of America’s families. Until then, expect the NRA to continue with its efforts to exploit the criminal market for financial gain.