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November 24, 2008

School Daze

News this past weekend of a school shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, served to remind me of a couple of misconceptions about the nature of gun violence in our nation’s school systems.

As I travel around the country, I often hear people say that our nation’s schools are inherently dangerous because of gun violence. The truth is that our schools are far safer than the world outside. The most recent data from the Department of Justice (DOJ) shows that youth are over 50 times more likely to be murdered—and over 150 times more likely to commit suicide—when they are away from school than at school. Another DOJ study found that 93% of violent crimes that victimize college students occur off campus.

Secondly, I hear the belief expressed that school gun violence is confined to schools in large inner cities. The sheer lunacy of this line of argument always makes me think of the Columbine High School shooting, which took place in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Two white students from this suburban school killed 15 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others before killing themselves.

This past year there have been major school shootings in Blacksburg, Virginia; Opelousas, Louisiana; Willoughby, Ohio; Phoenix , Arizona; Boca Raton, Florida; Omaha, Nebraska; Mobile, Alabama; and DeKalb, Illinois. A more complete listing of school shootings by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence illustrates the fact that the problem is not confined to major urban areas.

Despite that fact that our schools are some of the safest places in the country, we must continue to endeavor to keep them that way and improve existing security procedures. We must also be wary of a hard push by the gun lobby to put concealed handguns in our children’s classrooms. This disturbing development threatens to put our kids at greater risk and take the focus off the real problem—the incredibly easy access that children and the mentally unbalanced have to guns in our society.

November 17, 2008

The Last Thing They Want

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the gun control debate is not restricted to the United States. I would like to share with you in its entirety a recent article written by Ralph Ahren from Israel's oldest daily newspaper, Haaretz:

Founder of Israeli NRA Seeks to Import American Gun Culture

While the gun lobby in the United States took a setback last week with the election of Barack Obama, who supports the ban of assault weapons, a group of Israeli-Americans are now trying to ease restrictions on gun ownership here in Israel. Modeled and named after the powerful but controversial Virginia-based National Rifle Association, it is unclear whether the Israeli NRA will be able to gather enough support to be in any way influential. Several experts have already voiced criticism of the group's agenda.

"You hear about mob shootings in Netanya, where innocent people get killed, you hear about people being attacked with knives, with guns, with bulldozers," said Joshua Moesch, who founded the group last week. "I think that having more responsible citizens out there with weapons is very important. The police can be the greatest in the world, but they can't be everywhere at the same time."

Under the banner of self defense, the Israeli NRA advocates "the right to carry a firearm for all law abiding, military-serving Israeli citizens," as well as the expansion of what is known as the Shai Dromi law, which allows anyone who kills or injures an intruder on his or her property to be absolved of criminal responsibility. Other group goals include gun safety, self-defense courses, promoting shooting as a sport and creating police athletic leagues.

Moesch's first step was to create a Facebook group and a Web site. The 29-year-old Beit Shemesh resident told Anglo File he wants to first see how much support he can expect from the Israeli public before taking further action. If his group sees "a reasonable showing," the next move would be to register as a nonprofit organization and lobby to members of Knesset, he said.

Moesch, who immigrated to Israel from Vermont about six years ago, rejects the anti-gun lobby argument that more weapons would lead to greater violence. He counters by saying that compulsory army service makes Israeli society well acquainted with firearms, giving most people "a certain respect for guns." He adds, "People know in most cases when to use and when not to use them. We don't see many cases of off-duty soldiers getting into a fight in a club or something, using their guns to sort it out."

Yet it remains doubtful whether pro-gun advocacy will become as important in Israel as it is in the U.S. "The general trend to transplant American ideas to other countries is often not successful or very useful," said Gerald Steinberg, chairman of political studies at Bar Ilan University and an expert on American culture. The arguments put forward by the Israeli NRA are not convincing, he told Anglo File.

"We don't need a situation where hundreds of people shoot in all kinds of different directions in the case of a terror attack. That's the job of the police or the army," Steinberg said. He said that if more people carried guns the chances of more people getting hurt would be greater than the chance of neutralizing an attacker more quickly. "The last thing we want in Israel is an American gun culture," he added. "Israel has enough dangers, and making it easier for people on the street to carry guns is not what we need."

November 10, 2008

The Latest Charade

It seems that every election cycle there is an elaborate and almost comical charade that takes place. It goes something like this:

1) The National Rifle Association (NRA) alerts the media of a massive war chest to be spent to elect or defeat candidates based on their position on gun control.

2) Very small amounts of NRA monies are doled out to candidates in extremely safe seats.

3) Late in the election cycle, massive NRA funding is spent to defeat designated "gun grabbers." Wild and outrageous charges are hurled at these candidates.

4) Immediately after the election is concluded, the NRA claims a great victory, citing the percentage of winning candidates it has supported. This is duly reported in the press and touted in all the pro-gun publications. The elective power of the NRA becomes part of the “conventional wisdom.”

5) Later, careful analysis of the election results reveals that the majority of NRA-supported candidates would have won without the NRA. More importantly, in races where the NRA concentrates its attacks, their tactics are shown to have had no significant impact on the results. Unfortunately for the purveyors of conventional wisdom, the NRA claims of great victory have already been set in concrete. Future candidates are warned of the fearsome power of the big bad NRA.

Last Tuesday’s election once again followed the first half of the traditional pattern. During the summer, the NRA announced that it intended to spend $40 million in the elections—including an eye-popping $15 million campaign intended to defeat Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. The NRA backed some ‘A’-rated supporters in safe seats and launched outrageous attacks on other politicians, with Senator Obama their primary target.

But after Senator Obama’s landslide victory in the presidential election—and Democrats’ significant gains in both the House and Senate—the national media finally called attention to the NRA’s sleight of hand.

NBC’s Carrie Dann reported: “As the vote margins of the presidential race rolled in, the one-time wedge issue of the Second Amendment did not seem to pack the national-stage punch for which the influential gun lobby had aimed. Nationally, gun owners broke for McCain by almost the identical margin that they broke for Bush in 2004. But in the states where the NRA Political Victory Fund's toughest efforts against Obama were concentrated—gun-rich regions in states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico—Obama’s victory was decisive. The Democratic nominee won those states by eight, 11, and 15 points, respectively. Of the 11 states where the NRA's anti-Obama ads were reportedly aired, McCain won only one: Texas. Down the ballot, the NRA backed all six of the Republican Senate candidates who lost to Democratic challengers. And in several high-profile House contests, NRA-backed candidates like Ed Tinsley, Bill Sali, Steve Chabot, and Phil English came up short … The influence of the once-dominant gun lobby appears to be up for debate...”

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pointed out some other salient facts about the election in a new report, noting that “The NRA spent over thirty-one times more money against Obama than it spent in its negative efforts in 2000 against Al Gore” and “The NRA spent over 90% of its independent expenditures on losing candidates.”

Only time will tell if the purveyors of common wisdom will finally absorb the truth of the effect of the NRA on national elections (or lack thereof). We should remain cognizant, however, that the NRA had $15 million to waste on this election. Pro-gun control forces did not. Now is the time for those who support sensible gun laws to put some of their money where their heart is—there is still important work to be done to reduce the 30,000 lives lost annually to gun violence in our country.

November 3, 2008

Beyond the Inner City

There has always been one argument for not getting involved in the gun control issue that has confused and frustrated me. As I travel around the country, I often hear people say that gun violence is primarily an, “inner city, gang-related” problem.

This argument is deeply flawed on multiple fronts. First, it is factually incorrect. The FBI reported 14,860 total murders in 2005, only 850 of which were gang killings. That year, the ten states with the highest rates of gun death per capita in the U.S. were Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Tennessee, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi, and West Virginia—all predominantly rural states.

Secondly, there is a racial bias that is inherently embedded in the argument—suggesting that black Americans are the main victims and perpetrators of gun violence—therefore whites need not take the issue seriously. Out of the 31,446 gun deaths that occurred in America in 2005, 21,958 of the victims were whites. In terms of gun homicide, 5,266 of 12,352 victims in 2005 were white. The Department of Justice reports that from 1976 to 2005, 86% of white murder victims were killed by whites. Finally, there were more than 17,000 gun suicides in the U.S. in 2005, and 15,681 of these victims were whites. That’s a great deal of white on white gun violence that some would like to sweep under the carpet.

The sheer lunacy of the “inner city argument” was highlighted for me last week with news of yet another heinous shooting. I was aghast when I learned that eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj had died while shooting a fully automatic Uzi at a gun show in Westfield, Massachusetts. Westfield has been described as “a small city with the close-knit feel of a rural New England town” with a population of approximately 40,000.

I still remember, too, a seminal event that pushed me to become involved in gun violence prevention. On August 1, 1966, a white student at the University of Texas at Austin shot and killed 14 people and wounded 31 others from the observation deck of the University's 32-story administrative building. The gunman went on this rampage shortly after murdering his wife and mother as they lay sleeping.

Such shootings are just one small indicator of the inclusive nature of gun violence in America. These deaths, injuries, physical and psychic trauma affect all of us—regardless of age, race, class or geography.