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June 29, 2009

In a Split Second

I am constantly amazed at the number of people who blithely assume that their possession of a handgun—no matter what their level of training—would enable them to prevent or stop a gun-related crime without doing collateral damage. Such an assumption is often in direct contrast to the experience of well-trained, armed law enforcement officials.

On June 10, Bill Crummett, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), witnessed an armed crime unfolding as his car was stopped at a traffic light near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. As reported by Clarence Williams in the Washington Post, “Two pedestrians in a crosswalk pulled out semiautomatic handguns and opened fire on a third man, who was wounded and scrambled for cover behind a sports utility vehicle. The assailants then hid their weapons in their waistbands, leaving Crummett to make a split-second decision: Engage and risk a firefight or call for help.”

As Williams tells the story, “Crummett decided not to risk the chance of escalating a gun battle at an intersection crowded with commuters and pedestrians. Instead, he called D.C. police, gave them a description of the suspects and began a low-key pursuit until help arrived.” As a result of his actions, the guns used in the crime were recovered and one suspect was arrested later that day. No innocent bystanders were harmed at any time.

According to Agent Crummett: “There’s a couple of things that I could do at that moment. It was more dangerous for me to try take enforcement action…the smartest thing to do was to follow them.” Inspector Michael Reese with the D.C. Police agreed: “He could have opted to shoot, but he didn’t. I think he used good sound judgment. He let his expertise come into play.

I have heard far too many un-trained, would-be heroes confidently assert that they would pull their trusty piece and save the day in such a situation. Walter Mitty would be proud. In reality, reaching for your trusted piece will most likely result in increased tragedy. Owning a gun is a grave responsibility. Knowing when not to use one is imperative.

June 22, 2009

The Times on the Times

On the west coast, Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times looked at a business that’s booming in tough economic times and wondered, "What’s Triggering Gun Sales?" Lopez visited several gun dealerships in the Los Angeles area to find out.

Three main reasons were put forward for gun purchases. First is the much ballyhooed fear promoted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that President Obama is going to take away all guns. One dealer polished off the gun lobby’s old chestnut: "There are few things that stand between the people and tyranny. Once private gun ownership is eliminated, there's nothing to stop the government from doing what it wants to do."

The second reason has to do with fear of where the current Obama hatred might lead. As one dealer said, “If somebody shoots this guy, there's gonna be wars in the streets," adding that the violence would make the Rodney King rioting look like a picnic in the park, and some people are afraid to get stuck without enough bullets.

The third reason given was a real doozy: Some people "don't know whether [Obama’s] Muslim or Christian."

I loved Lopez’s response to these arguments. “If war broke out between the U.S. government and the Inland Empire, would it be that easy to choose sides? … Then again, if there are people in this country unstable enough to think Obama might lead a jihad, shouldn't I be prepared to protect myself from them?”

In another recent editorial, New York Times columnist John Herbert wrote, “Americans are not paying enough attention to the frightening connection between the right-wing hate-mongers who continue to slither among us and the gun crazies who believe a well-aimed bullet is the ticket to all their dreams … As if the wackos weren’t dangerous enough to begin with, the fuel to further inflame them is available in the over-the-top rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which has relentlessly pounded the bogus theme that Barack Obama is planning to take away people’s guns ... While the NRA is not advocating violence, it shouldn’t take more than a glance at the newspapers to understand why this is a message that the country could do without.”

Herbert pointed to the obvious irony that “gun control advocates are, frankly, disappointed in the president’s unwillingness to move ahead on even the mildest of gun control measures.” He wisely concluded that the first step to addressing the threat of insurrectionist violence in our country, “should be to bring additional gun control back into the policy mix.”

It’s great to see some editorial sanity from both ends of the country.

June 15, 2009

Two Horrifying Days

One horrifying day is seared in my memory—the day in 1962 I spent touring the remains of Auschwitz with a friend who had lost his wife, children and parents in that unspeakable death camp. I can not express the sense of evil that permeated those grounds. I was made acutely aware of the horror that can be unleashed by organized and armed hate groups.

The memory was brought vividly back to life by the tragic shooting at the U.S. Holocaust museum here in Washington, D.C. The perpetrator of the shooting left a note, “You want my weapons—this is how you’ll get them. The Holocaust is a lie.”

According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the killer “held subscription and mail-order memberships in an assortment of far-right and anti-Semitic organizations, including the California-based Institute for Historic Review, the Adelaide Institute, a far-right Australian group, and, at one point, was nominated as a ‘white racialist treasure’ by a visitor to Stormfront, a neo-Nazi Web site based in Florida. In 2004, [he] spent several months in Hayden, Idaho, home base of the now-defunct Aryan Nations, a longtime breeding ground for white supremacists and domestic terrorists that included The Order, a supremacist group that carried out murders and armed robberies in the 1980s. One intelligence document shows that…FBI agents discovered an application form for Mr. von Brunn for an Aryan Nations splinter group known as Church of the Sons of Yaweh.”

More frightening to me are the comments made by other spewers of racial hatred in the wake of the shooting. A friend of von Brunn’s, White Separatist John de Nugent, said "James von Brunn is significant because he is somebody who simply acted on his belief. But I think there are millions of white people who are trending in this direction. If I were to advocate the violent overthrow of the country I think hundreds of people would join me right now."

The Holocaust Museum shooting—so closely following on the heels of the shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller in his church—reminds us of how much damage can be done to our democratic ideals by a dedicated group of hate-mongers who have easy, unregulated access to deadly firearms. The comments of people like John de Nugent make my blood run cold.

Two of my current and former colleagues at CSGV, Josh Horwitz and Casey Anderson, recently published an important book, Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea, that discusses in detail the harm that is being done to our fragile democracy by these armed insurrectionists.

June 8, 2009

Sound the Battle Cry of Radicalism

At my age I probably should not be—but constantly am—amazed at the things some in the pro-gun lobby will say in order to get a mention in the news. In a desperate attempt to fire-up the faithful, groups like Gun Owners of America (GOA) have accused Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor of being “an anti-gun radical” for joining a Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit opinion earlier this year that refused to incorporate the U.S. Supreme Court’s D.C. v. Heller decision on the Second Amendment at the state level.

In their shrill statement, the group charged that “Sotomayor, a politically correct lover of centralized government power (as long as she is part of the power elite), immediately went into counter-attack mode against the Heller decision” in the opinion mentioned above in the case of Maloney v. Cuomo.

As if to emphasize how detached from reality that rant was, this past week a panel of conservative judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, hearing a challenge to gun laws in Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois, came to the same conclusion as the Sotomayor panel. “We agree with Maloney” read the unanimous decision written by the circuit’s Chief Judge, Frank K. Easterbrook, one of the country’s leading conservative jurists. “The Supreme Court has rebuffed requests to apply the Second Amendment to the states,” Easterbrook wrote. He was joined in the decision by the well-known conservative jurist Richard A. Posner and a third Republican-appointed judge.

Now, I have no idea of how Judge Sotomayor actually feels about the gun rights/responsibility debate. I truly wish that I did. However, I do know that the gun lobby has no more information than I do. That does not prevent them, however, from making outlandish and defaming statements to play to the media and attempt to raise more funds from the faithful. Nor does it bode well for an honest debate on the issues. Once again, the gun lobby adheres to the admonition to not let the salt of truth ruin the flavor of a good press quote.

June 1, 2009

The Power of Doubt

Recently, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held its annual convention in Phoenix, and I chanced upon an interesting quote from a Remington employee who ran a booth at the gun expo there. Speaking about the NRA’s view on President Obama, he said, “We have our doubts and doubt is that makes this organization thrive.”

Just three days later, NRA Board Member Ted Nugent published an editorial in the Waco Tribune that seemed to confirm this theory by elevating doubt (or “fear,” if you prefer) to a new level.

“Water is essential to life … A certain lunatic fringe is always conspiring to ban guns, something else we need to live,” Nugent said, without offering any concrete examples of such proposals (or perhaps Mr. Nugent simply believes an assault weapon is as essential to human life as oxygen).

But Nugent wasn’t done there... He then described the NRA’s annual convention as “a great celebration of good over evil,” thereby condemning not only gun violence prevention organizations, but also the thousands of victims and survivors of gun violence across the country who actively advocate for tougher gun laws. That includes survivors of the Virginia Tech shootings and family members of the victims in that tragedy, 50 of whom recently wrote the Richmond Times to urge legislators to close the Gun Show Loophole, a proposal the NRA adamantly opposes.

Nugent’s doubts also extended to our nation’s law enforcement officers. “All the evidence tells us that calling 9-1-1 is a joke,” he states. “We’ll tell authorities to bring a dustpan and a mop to clean up the dead monster we just shot.”

“Peace and love will get you killed,” Nugent concluded, not bothering to explain why the United States, with its weak gun laws, has higher rates of homicide than virtually every other industrialized democracy in the world.

Doubts? I have my own, particularly in regards to the mental health of the NRA’s celebrity spokesmen.