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June 30, 2008

The "Hidden" Handgun

On June 9, in Columbia, South Carolina, a family’s shopping trip turned into a nightmare when a child found her grandmother’s hidden handgun. The young girl, who is four years old, was riding in a shopping cart when she reached inside of her grandmother’s purse, pulled out a loaded small-caliber handgun, and shot herself in the chest. Luckily, the bullet missed her major organs. She is now recovering after intense surgery and will be released from the hospital soon.

The grandmother, Donna Hutto Williamson, a South Carolina magistrate, possessed a license to carry a concealed weapon in the state. Chief Magistrate Rodger Emerson Edmonds noted that it is common for magistrates to carry guns for protection: "Sometimes some of the judges have to make deposits at the banks. The other reason is for self preservation to protect yourself because there are some crazies out there."

Williamson had been shopping with her granddaughter at Sam’s Club. South Carolina law allows those with concealed carry permits to bring handguns into privately-owned businesses unless they post signs prohibiting firearms on their premises. Sam’s Club posts no such signs at their retail outlets.

It is clear from all reports that Williamson is a well-respected individual in her community. Her case demonstrates that even law-abiding gun owners are subject to the distractions of everyday life, which can sometimes lead to serious lapses in judgment. No one plans on accidents. Williamson believed that her gun would protect her if she was attacked by an armed criminal. In the end, however, it was her gun that ended up nearly killing her loved one.

Thankfully, her granddaughter survived the gunshot, but Williamson is still facing possible charges, including child endangerment and unlawful neglect of a child. Hopefully, this unfortunate incident will be a lesson to others—guns should always be stored away securely so that they are totally inaccessible to children.

June 16, 2008

Folk Villain

On May 24, thousands of people gathered to listen to music and dance at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle, Washington. Among the crowd was a 22 year-old man from Snohomish County named Clinton C. Grainger, who brought with him a Glock 19 handgun concealed in an ankle holster. Reports indicate that a fight began when Grainger gave a man at the festival a confrontational look as he walked by. The man said he thought he recognized Grainger and asked his name. Instead of answering, Grainger pushed the man in the chest and went for the gun in his ankle holster, firing the sidearm once. The bullet passed through the man’s nasal cavity, penetrated another person’s wrist and finally lodged in a third person’s leg. Miraculously, none of these three victims were critically injured, and all are currently recovering.

It seems odd that someone attending a peaceful music festival would feel the need to carry a gun on his person. But since that day, local law enforcement officials have discovered a number of startling facts about Grainger.

Since he was 18 years old, Grainger had been enrolled in a treatment program for drug addiction. He also struggled with mental illness, and was taking prescribed medication for anxiety and schizophrenia. Additionally, Grainger had a record of juvenile convictions for misdemeanor theft and possession of stolen property.

Despite these issues, Grainger was granted a permit to carry a concealed weapon by the state of Washington in 2007. Washington is a “shall-issue” state, meaning that local law enforcement officials must issue a concealed carry permit to any applicant who meets a basic set of qualifications and passes a computerized instant background check. Under federal law, those with felony convictions or domestic violence-related misdemeanor convictions are prohibited from possessing or purchasing firearms. The state of Washington also prohibits those convicted of “any crime of violence.” Grainger’s convictions, however, were for non-violent juvenile misdemeanor offenses, so they were not flagged when his background check was run.

Nor did Grainger’s diagnosis of schizophrenia prevent him from passing his background check. Federal law prohibits the possession or purchase of firearms by those who have been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution—neither of which conditions applied to Grainger’s case. Grainger also avoided disqualification for his drug addiction by claiming on his background check form that he was not “an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana, or any depressant, stimulant or narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance.”

In the wake of recent tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, many Americans are undoubtedly wondering why it is still so easy for individuals with histories of mental illness to purchase firearms and even obtain permits to carry concealed handguns. One thing is certain: Grainger would not have been able to obtain a concealed carry permit in a “may-issue” state, where local law enforcement is given the discretion to withhold a permit from an applicant who might pose a threat to themselves or others, regardless of whether they pass an instant background check.

In response to the shooting at the Folklife Festival, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels has signed an executive order requiring the city to come up with a plan to prohibit visitors from bringing firearms into city facilities. Mayor Nickels deserves praise for this important step to improve public safety—however, in order to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, we must ensure that individuals are thoroughly screened before they are allowed to purchase and carry firearms.

June 2, 2008

A Child's Party, A Family's Nightmare

Normally, a child’s birthday party is a time for celebration and joy. In Rhode Island, on May 18, however, one boy’s party turned deadly when a neighborhood dispute escalated into violence.

On that day, James Pagano, a local firefighter, was hosting a birthday party for his young son. During the course of the party, a ball that Pagano’s son and other children were playing with struck a car owned by a neighbor, Nicolas Gianquitti. An argument between Pagano and Gianquitti ensued and the men began to scuffle. Witnesses reported that Gianquitti then fired several shots from a handgun at Pagano, who was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly thereafter. There was confusion as to whether Gianquitti left his house armed, or if he returned inside to retrieve the handgun before shooting Pagano. Gianquitti has been charged with murder and is being held without bail.

Cranston Fire Chief James Gumbley told the media that Pagano, the father of two young children, was well-liked and respected by his co-workers. One neighbor described him as a “great guy, really family-oriented.” A friend called him the most stand-up, reliable friend you could ever know.”

Gianquitti, who served as a Providence police officer for six months during the early 1990s, legally owned the murder weapon and had been licensed to carry a concealed handgun in Rhode Island for fifteen years. From most accounts, he did not get along with his neighbors in Cranston. A former neighbor said that Gianquitti would often complain about balls “banging his cars.” In 2006, he filed a formal complaint with Cranston police about neighborhood kids going on his property. Adriana Pagano, James’ wife, filed her own complaint and was concerned that Gianquitti watched her children play from inside his house. Another neighbor described Gianquitti as “weird” and said that her parents told her younger brother to stay away from the man.

Despite the problems Gianquitti had with his neighbors, there was no indication that he was prone to violence. Before the shooting, Gianquitti possessed a clean criminal record and was legally permitted to carry a concealed handgun. Nor were Gianquitti’s issues with his property or neighbors unique, as many communities experience such conflicts and disagreements.

In almost all cases, however, such conflicts are resolved peacefully—through our legal system if necessary—but without violence. Had a gun not been present, Gianquitti and Pagano’s scuffle probably would have resulted in a simple fistfight. Bodies and egos might have been temporarily bruised and perhaps law enforcement would have been called in to mediate. Instead, Gianquitti’s gunfire has left James Pagano dead and a wife and two young children without the man they love the most. Gianquitti himself now faces a criminal charge that could land him in prison for the rest of his life.

Over kids on a lawn? A scuff mark or dent on a car? Whatever stress or anger Gianquitti was dealing with at the moment, surely it was not worth this.