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December 7, 2009

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Today we relate the stories of three more “ordinary people” who are not only concealed carry permit holders, but certified instructors paid to provide the safety and training classes required to obtain a permit in their states. If concealed carry permit holders are the most law-abiding citizens in our country, we would expect their trainers to be virtually infallible when it comes to respecting the rule of law. The truth, however, is somewhat less flattering…

On the evening of May 13, police responded to a call regarding a deceased person in a private home in Palestine, Texas. When they arrived, 62-year-old Ronnie Cook, a concealed handgun instructor in the state, opened fire on them from inside the house. The officers took cover and secured a perimeter. Two hours later, Cook called 911 and negotiated his surrender. He then walked out of his house in a pair of handcuffs he had placed on his own wrists. Police entered the home and discovered Cook’s wife, 62 year-old Frances Darlene Cook, dead in the bathroom from a single gunshot wound. Ronnie Cook now faces a murder charge for his wife’s slaying as well as attempted capital murder charges for firing at the police.

In August, handgun training instructor Jason Hernandez, 38, was arrested in Perrysburg Township, Ohio, on charges of selling falsified concealed carry permits. To acquire a permit in Ohio, residents are required to complete 12 hours of instruction. More than 130 individuals allegedly bought training certificates from Hernandez, however, without attending any classes or receiving instruction. Hernandez now faces charges of forgery and tampering with evidence. Wood County Detective Sergeant Scott Koch reported that applicants paid $150 to $300 for a falsified certificate despite the fact that actual training classes cost between $75 and $150. Falsified permits that were issued to individuals in Wood County have been suspended.

On September 28, parents of students attending Saint Gregory School in Tyler, Texas, received an email from Principal Kathy Shieldes Harry informing them that the father of a four-year-old student had inadvertently left a loaded handgun in his daughter’s overnight bag. A teacher discovered the gun while the girl was rummaging through her backpack in class. Her father is a certified concealed handgun instructor in Texas. The child’s mother told the Tyler Morning Telegraph that the school did not inform her of the discovery and that she only learned of the gun when she went to take her daughter home: “We were pulling out of the parking lot and I saw her father pulling in and I asked her if she knew why her dad was at the school, and she told me his gun was in her backpack.” Don Martin, the Tyler Police Department public information officer, said that it is illegal to have a gun on the school’s campus and the girl’s parents could be charged with making a handgun accessible to a minor.

These incidents suggest that certified concealed handgun instructors are vetted no more carefully than their charges in terms of assessing their potential threat to public safety. Perhaps even they are ordinary people after all...

November 9, 2009

The Gun-Toting Soccer Mom

On October 7, Meleanie Hain’s handgun failed to protect her. That evening, she was in the kitchen of her home in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, chatting on the Internet with a friend through a web camera. Her husband, Scott Hain, entered the room, picked up a 9mm handgun, and shot her several times. As the Hain’s children—ages 2, 6 and 10—fled the house in terror, Hain’s online friend heard the shots and immediately called 911. When police arrived, Meleanie Hain was found dead in the kitchen. Scott Hain, having committed suicide with a shotgun, was found dead in an upstairs bedroom.

Meleanie’s 9mm Glock 26 handgun, loaded with a full magazine and a bullet in the chamber, was in a backpack hanging from the front door. A car parked in the driveway bore an “NRA Law Enforcement” bumper sticker.

A Visible Presence
The murder-suicide drew a significant amount of media coverage because Meleanie Hain was an ardent and outspoken pro-gun activist. Known as the “gun-toting soccer mom,” she gained national attention in September of last year when she openly carried her Glock handgun to her five year-old daughter’s soccer game in Lebanon. This led to an outcry by other parents affiliated with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Soccer League who feared for the safety of their children. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much they could do. It is legal for Pennsylvania residents to openly carry handguns in public—and no permit is required.

Why did Hain bring her gun to her daughter’s soccer games? She explained that it was for self-defense and because “carrying a gun ensures that I’m taking responsibility for my children’s safety.” She added that she carried her gun openly (versus concealed) because “I don’t really need anything extra in the way of the gun if I’m going to have to pull it out and I’m holding a baby and trying to shuttle two or three other kids.” “It may sound arrogant,” Hain said, “but the Constitution has guaranteed me a right, and there is nothing more to say about it.”

Preaching the Gospel
Hain spoke frequently with the press and echoed a number of talking points that have been circulated for years by the National Rifle Association and other gun lobby groups:

These comments brought plaudits from pro-gun activists (Pennsylvania Open Carry presented her with awards and one visitor at OpenCarry.org memorialized Hain by stating, “She was a true beacon for the [open carry] cause and fought the good fight”) and circumspection by Lebanon County Sheriff Michael DeLeo. On September 17, 2008, DeLeo revoked Hain’s concealed handgun permit, citing a section of Pennsylvania law that applies to individuals “whose character and reputation is such that [they] would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.”

Hain appealed the revocation and her permit was reinstated on October 14, 2008, by County Judge Robert Eby, a gun owner and concealed carry permit holder himself. Eby said that the law required him to return Hain’s permit (Pennsylvania is a “shall-issue” state that gives local law enforcement no discretion in denying permits to those who pass basic computerized background checks), but he questioned her judgment nonetheless. Eby noted that Hain had “scared the devil” out of other parents and children, and declared, “Fear doesn’t belong at a kid’s soccer game from any source.” He advised her to stop open carrying her sidearm at the games—a suggestion she immediately dismissed.

Scarlet Letter
Hain wasn’t done though. She then launched a million-dollar lawsuit against Sheriff DeLeo, claiming he had infringed on her Second Amendment rights. “Just the fact that he was wrong is evidenced by the fact that my license was restored to me,” said Hain. “I am a victim of Sheriff Michael DeLeo’s. I am a victim of those in society as a direct result of his actions as well. The way people look at me sometimes when I am out running errands, I feel as if I am wearing a scarlet letter, and really it’s a Glock 26.”

Hain’s family was also beginning to look at her differently. She noted that, outside of her mother, her family was “not well educated about firearms” and “basically anti-gun.” Additionally, several local families took their children out of the daycare center that Hain ran out of her home as a result of her open carry activism. This represented a distinct setback in OpenCarry.org’s goal to "naturalize the presence of guns, which means that guns become ordinary, omnipresent, and expected. Over time, the gun becomes a symbol of ordinary personhood."

The Devil You Know
Ironically, the greatest threat to Hain at this time was not from outside her home, but from within. Hain’s attorney, Matthew Weisberg, indicated that she had separated from her husband Scott Hain, a parole officer, in early 2009, and wanted to pursue a protective order against him. Jay Bell, a moderator at the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association message board (where Hain’s screen name was “shefearsnothing”), said, “She was telling me at the [Open Carry] dinner in Collegeville she was planning to discuss divorce with her husband, but was afraid he’d react violently.” What exactly transpired between Meleanie Hain and her husband in the days and hours before the shooting is unknown, but it is now clear her fears were justified.

Reacting to the Hain’s murder-suicide, Daniel Vice of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said, “We hear about cases like this every day. Eighty people are killed by guns each day [in the United States] … We see every day the effects of gun violence, especially against women. Having a gun in the home makes it 22 times more likely you’ll be killed by that gun instead of it being used on an intruder.” Joe Grace, Executive Director of CeaseFire Pennsylvania, added, “The myth is that you’re safer with a gun … Having a gun did not make Meleanie safer. She and her husband are now deceased … It should give policy-makers pause. It’s time to let go of extreme rhetoric in the name of sanity and common sense.”

In the end, there was one piece of Hain’s rhetoric that seemed prescient. “If children are afraid of guns, that goes back to their parents,” Hain said on November 12, 2008, on the “It’s Your Call” show with Lynn Doyle. “It goes back to what they’re being exposed to at home.” Certainly, no one has suffered worse in this tragedy then the Hain children.

October 26, 2009

A Tale of Two Terrorists

When most Americans think about gun control, they think about laws that are designed to stop street criminals from obtaining firearms. In the post-9/11 era, however, such laws are equally important in foiling the violent ambitions of terrorists. Because the gun lobby has successfully blocked federal efforts to prohibit those on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List from buying guns, it is frequently up to individual states to provide the necessary safeguards to prevent such purchases.

Two recent arrests that made national headlines provide an interesting contrast in terms of states’ ability (or willingness) to handle this responsibility.

The first was made on September 25, when authorities apprehended 33-year-old Anes Subasic after a nine-hour search of his home in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Officials found counterterrorism literature, an empty sniper scope case, and ammunition in the house. Subasic is a Muslim who fled Bosnia during its civil war (later becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen). Along with Daniel Boyd, Zakaria Boyd, Hysen Sherifi, Dlyan Boyd, Ziyad Yaghi, and Mohammad Omar Aly Hassain; Subasic was charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists. The cell is accused of planning violent overseas operations and an attack on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.

Not only was the cell able to acquire a substantial cache of firearms (Daniel Boyd was also charged with selling a Ruger mini 14 and ammunition to a convicted felon), but it has also been revealed that Subasic held a permit to carry a concealed handgun in North Carolina.

Not that there weren’t obvious red flags in his background... The Bosnian Serb Republic courts had issued four warrants for Subasic’s arrest, one of which was international. An official with the Bosnian Serb police stated that Subasic “is known to be part of a criminal gang that operated in the wider area of Bosnia and the region.” All told, Bosnian Serb police charged Subasic 11 times on 16 counts of attempted murder, extortion and robbery. A waitress in Banja Luka recalled Subasic entering a restaurant and spraying fire randomly with an automatic weapon. “Whoever knows Anes, they are not surprised [by his recent arrest],” she said.

Because North Carolina is a “shall-issue” state, authorities were required to issue Subasic a concealed carry permit after he passed a computerized background check (Subasic had only minor traffic offenses during his time in the U.S.). A simple background investigation should have turned up Subasic’s outstanding international warrants, but no such investigation is conducted either for firearm purchasers or concealed carry permit holders in North Carolina.

Another terrorist who was recently apprehended had a much harder time arming himself. On October 21, Tarek Mehanna, a 27 year-old resident of Sudbury, Massachusetts, was arrested and charged with providing material support to terrorists. Authorities say Mehanna was part of a cell that attempted to join terrorist groups in Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan. When they failed to gain admission, they began plotting attacks on U.S. soil.

Inspired by the 2002 sniper attacks in Washington, D.C., Mehanna and his co-plotters hatched a plan to commit a mass shooting in a shopping mall in Massachusetts. However, according to U.S. Attorney Michael Loucks, “Mehanna and his co-conspirators ultimately abandoned this plan, because they could not obtain the automatic weapons they thought necessary to effectively carry out such an assault.”

Massachusetts certainly does not make it easy for dangerous individuals to get assault weapons. Any resident seeking to obtain a "large capacity" weapon (including assault weapons capable of holding more than ten rounds of ammunition directly, or via a high-capacity magazine) must obtain a special Class A license. The screening requirements to obtain this license are extensive, and law enforcement is given the discretion to deny any applicant they believe is a potential threat to public safety.

Unregulated private sales of firearms are also closely regulated in Massachusetts. The state requires all private sellers to submit a written report documenting each firearm transfer to the executive director of the state’s Criminal History Systems Board. Purchasers of firearms from private sellers are also required to submit this information. Additionally, no more than four firearms may be transferred by a Massachusetts resident in this manner in a given calendar year.

The National Rifle Association loves to claim that criminals will always be able to obtain firearms, no matter what laws are passed. The case of Tarek Mehanna gives lie to this notion. Clearly, smart gun laws can deter dangerous individuals bent on arming themselves for violence. In a time when internal threats in our country are very real, state legislators should pay heed to the case of Mehanna and put public safety over the priorities of the gun lobby.

September 21, 2009

Gunning for the President

The nation, sadly, has become well acquainted with the phenomenon of individuals bringing loaded guns to town hall meetings, presidential speeches and other political events. Initially, these shows of force were headline news and covered nationally. Recently, however, two disturbing incidents occurred that barely made a blip on even the local media radar.

On the evening of September 9, President Barack Obama was at the U.S. Capitol preparing to address a joint session of Congress on the subject of health care reform. At approximately 8:00 p.m., Joshua Bowman, 28, of Falls Church, Virginia, attempted to drive his Honda Civic into a secure area near the Capitol. U.S. Capitol Police stopped him and, searching his car, found a rifle, a shotgun and 500 rounds of ammunition. Bowman was arrested on the spot and charged with two counts of possession of an unregistered firearm and one count of unlawful possession of ammunition. An Associated Press article noted that “Bowman’s intentions were unclear.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington has stated that they have decided against prosecuting Bowman on more serious charges. It is difficult to imagine, however, what legitimate reason there might have been for bringing that kind of firepower to the Capitol when so many important elected officials were gathered in one place.

Three days later, Josh Hendrickson of Rogers, Minnesota, traveled to a rally outside the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, where President Obama was giving another speech on health care reform. Hendrickson, a concealed carry permit holder in Minnesota, was carrying a .40 caliber Glock 22 handgun in a holster on his hip, and a Kel Tec 380 in his pocket. “The Second Amendment isn’t suspended just because the president’s in town,” he explained. He was questioned by Minneapolis police and Secret Service agents, but no charges were pressed.

Hendrickson described himself as a “pretty laid-back guy,” a National Rifle Association member who always takes his keys, wallet and guns when he leaves the house. In reality, Hendrickson is a “Truther” with a violent criminal history. In fact, he was recently released after serving a 60-day stint in jail for pepper spraying a customer at the Cub Foods where he worked as a security guard. The woman had parked illegally, Hendrickson claims, and was being belligerent. “It didn’t cause a commotion,” though, he assured a reporter. Nonetheless, Hendrickson was fired, charged with fifth-degree assault, and convicted.

Nor was that his only contact with law enforcement. Hendrickson described two other incidents, one “a disorderly conduct charge involving a parking lot argument as his son’s school” and another “a dispute over a neighbor’s dog, in which police were called.” A search of the Minnesota Trial Court Public Access website reveals a total of 9 convictions for Joshua David Hendrickson, born in November 1976: 1 for 5th degree assault, 1 for Disorderly Conduct—Brawling or Fighting, 3 for Disorderly Conduct, 1 for Reckless Driving, 2 for Driving While Intoxicated, and 1 for Interfering with an Emergency Call.

Sadly, Hendrickson was able to obtain a concealed handgun permit in Minnesota and hold on to it despite this extensive criminal record. Under Minnesota law, Hendrickson’s permit could have been revoked after his conviction for fifth-degree assault. And the law would have required law enforcement to revoke Hendrickson’s permit following his DWI convictions had he been armed during either one of these incidents. Although Minnesota is a “shall-issue” state, Minnesota sheriffs are also permitted to deny permits if they believe there is a “substantial likelihood that the applicant would be a danger to self or others.”

That Hendrickson was able to avoid all these hurdles and carry handguns near the president without being arrested is astonishing. “Now I’m going to be the guy with the assault record—the gun-carrying assaulter of people who’s outside the Obama rally,” Hendrickson predicted.

On that point, he was right. The natural question is now: How many other individuals carrying guns at political events (either openly or concealed) have disturbing criminal histories? And why is the media already losing interest in what should be headline news?

August 17, 2009

“You can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.”

On August 4, George Sodini , 48, walked into the LA Fitness Center in Collier, Pennsylvania, wearing black workout gear and a headband. In his pocket was a .32 semiautomatic handgun. He carried a duffel bag with three more handguns: two 9mm semiautomatic pistols with 30-round clips and a .45 caliber revolver. All told, he was carrying 150 rounds of ammunition.

Sodini entered an exercise room where an aerobics class was taking place, turned off the lights, and opened fire, emptying one of the 9mm pistols. He then drew the second 9mm pistol and continued firing. In his last act, Sodini drew the .45 revolver and shot himself in the head. When the smoke cleared, at least 36 rounds had been fired and Sodini and three women lay dead. Sodini’s victims were Heidi Overmier, 46; Elizabeth Gannon, 49; and Jody Billingsley, 37. Nine other women were wounded in the shooting.

Within minutes of the tragedy becoming national news, the internet community discovered a journal that Sodini had posted online. In it, Sodini provided his name, date of birth, and hometown—and in a series of entries dating back to November 2008 detailed his plans to commit mass murder. Sodini asked “Why do this?? To young girls?” and made it clear that it was because he was lonely, suicidal, and deeply angry at women, who he felt had spurned him his entire life. He took comfort, however, in a conversation with his pastor at Tetelestai Church in Pittsburgh, who convinced him that “you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.” The journal even detailed a previous failed murder-suicide attempt by Sodini on January 6 of this year. “I chickened out!” he wrote. “I brought the loaded guns, everything. Hell!

Authorities had also had previous contact with Sodini. Jack Rickard, a deacon at Tetelestai Church, reported Sodini after he harassed a woman there. A state trooper called Sodini to discuss the matter with him, but no charges were filed. Sodini was asked to leave the church, however, and he did.

A week before the shooting, Sodini came to authorities’ attention again when they received reports that a man on a public bus in Pittsburgh had pulled out what appeared to be a grenade from a computer bag. The man saw a passenger on the bus watching him and said, “It is real. Do you want to hold it?” Soon after, police questioned Sodini—who matched a description provided by the passenger. Sodini denied any involvement, and escaped charges when the passenger couldn’t confirm him as the suspect. After the shooting at LA Fitness Center, Allegheny County Police found a note in Sodini’s home that referred to the grenade incident. “Don’t worry about that; it was a fake,” it said.

Despite all this, Sodini purchased the firearms using in the shooting legally (and bought one of his high capacity-magazines and a magazine loader from Eric Thompson, the online gun dealer who also armed mass shooters Seung-Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak). Sodini also held a permit to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Pennsylvania.

The screening process for both purchasing firearms and obtaining a concealed carry permit in Pennsylvania involves a computerized background check. That check searches a state database and also the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the federal database maintained by the FBI. Because he had no significant criminal record, and because he had not been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or adjudicated as a “mental defective,” Sodini passed those checks. No background investigation is conducted in Pennsylvania to determine if there is any significant history that is missed by the computer check (this is despite the fact that the NICS database is missing millions of records that should be disqualifying purchasers). The result is that Pennsylvania authorities allowed Sodini to purchase firearms and carry a handgun in public without even looking for what it took bloggers minutes to find—a publicly-posted journal detailing his plans to slaughter women.

George Sodini is the fourth confirmed concealed carry permit holder to commit mass murder this year. Like him, the others—Frank Garcia, Michael McClendon, and Richard Poplawski—all had obvious red flags in their background that should have prevented them from obtaining their permits. It has been clear for some time in America that our weak gun laws make it easy for dangerous individuals to purchase firearms. The frequency with which they are obtaining permits to carry concealed handguns in public is a phenomenon that is even more disturbing.

July 20, 2009

Back Nine

On June 22, an argument at a golf course in Austin, Texas, nearly turned into a tragedy. That day, Matthew Nader (a former stand-out football player for Westlake High School) and two friends were playing golf at the Lions Municipal Golf Course when 73-year-old Edwin Dailey approached the group and complained about their slow play and the way they had parked their golf cart. The argument continued for four more holes. At the 13th hole, Dailey told Nader that he was prepared to “make them both equal” by getting his gun.

After the 18th hole, all four of the golfers ended up in the course’s parking lot together. There was another verbal exchange, and Dailey pulled out a .25-caliber Browning handgun loaded with hollow-point bullets and pointed it at Nader. Nader and his friends took cover behind their cars, and Dailey concealed the weapon and walked back to the clubhouse.

The three men were on the phone calling 911 when Dailey returned to the parking lot. “If I feel threatened, I am morally obligated to destroy you,” he told the former football star and his friends. [It is unclear if Dailey was alluding to Texas’ controversial “Shoot First Law,” which removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a potential confrontation and presumes that he/she is reasonable in using lethal force if someone enters or is attempting to enter their occupied home, car or workplace.]

Dailey then left the scene, but was pulled over soon after by an Austin city marshal and taken into custody. Police seized the Browning handgun and also found a .38-caliber Beretta pistol with two magazines in a cooler in Dailey’s car.

In an affidavit, officers stated that they didn’t believe that Dailey had been in physical danger or that his threat of deadly force was justified. Dailey has been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a second-degree felony, and was released from prison on $15,000 bail.

Law enforcement officials have reported that Dailey holds a concealed carry permit in the state of Texas. It is unclear at this time whether he has a criminal record or any past history of mental instability. Texas residents can obtain concealed carry permits by showing proof of residency in the State of Texas, filling out an online application, and taking a single 10-hour gun safety class.

A “shall-issue” state, Texas forces law enforcement to issue a permit to anyone who completes these requirements and passes a computerized background check. The federal database searched during these checks, however, is missing millions of records that would potentially disqualify an applicant.

Hopefully, law enforcement authorities in Texas will take prompt action to revoke Edwin Dailey’s concealed carry permit. Any individual who feels a “moral obligation” to shoot and kill someone for their pace of play on a golf course is clearly a threat to public safety and not fit to carry a handgun in public—or anywhere else.

June 29, 2009

Siege Mentality

On June 8 in Kittery, Maine, 60 year-old Michael Flaherty called relatives to say “goodbye” after surrounding himself with guns and ammunition and making “direct threats to kill family members and the police should they arrive.”

At 11:00 a.m. that morning police responded to a domestic disturbance call from Flaherty’s wife and forced entry into the family’s home after hearing cries for help. They found Flaherty and members of his family wrestling over a loaded .44-caliber Magnum revolver. Flaherty was wearing a bulletproof vest and had a second loaded .25-caliber handgun in his possession.

Thankfully, police were able to gain possession of the guns and subdue Flaherty before anyone got hurt. After searching the residence, police discovered “additional firearms at various entry points around the house with ammunition nearby as if they were ready for use.” All told, police seized a total of four rifles, two shotguns, two handguns, and several hundred rounds of ammunition. According to Sergeant Daniel Soule of the Kittery Police Department, it appears that Flaherty “was ready for a standoff. Everyone was fortunate in that no one was hurt. Praise goes to the officers, but also to the family members.”

Flaherty now faces charges of criminal threatening, and domestic violence-related reckless conduct, which were elevated to felonies due to the presence and use of firearms. He is currently being held at the York County jail on $20,000 bail, and is scheduled to appear in Superior Court on July 30.

Reports have revealed that Flaherty held concealed carry permits in the states of Maine and New Hampshire. Both are "shall-issue" states, meaning that local law enforcement must issue applicants a permit to carry a concealed handgun if they pass a basic computerized background check. Apparently, Flaherty did not have a criminal record that would have prevented him from passing those checks. In terms of mental health issues, only a previous involuntary commitment or adjudication by a court deeming an individual “mentally defective” would bar that person from possessing or purchasing guns under federal law. Unfortunately, the states have yet to forward 9 out of 10 of these disqualifying mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) run by the FBI.

One thing is sure: Michael Flaherty did not just wake up one Monday morning and decide to kill himself and his family. He had prepared carefully for his siege. Laws which prohibit law enforcement from examining individuals’ backgrounds in detail when they purchase firearms or obtain permits to carry concealed weapons might further the agendas of gun lobby groups, but do little or nothing to protect the public. Thanks to the brave and rapid response of the Kittery police to this incident, no one was killed or injured. Sadly, this is frequently not the case when disturbed individuals gain easy access to firearms.

June 1, 2009

Attack of the Black Dwarves

On May 24, a 56 year-old male resident of Elyria, Ohio, went to a nearby house armed with a shotgun and asked his neighbor to call 911. When police arrived, they ordered the man to put the shotgun down, but he refused, stating, “I can’t, I’m protecting myself, I have a concealed carry permit.” After police promised to protect him, he put the gun down, and said that two armed black men were in his home. He also told officers that the night before the same black men had broken into his home, but he had chased them down the street, firing a full magazine of 9mm rounds at them.

Officers entered the man’s home and found no intruders or signs of forced entry. They did, however, find “pans, bowls and other containers throughout the house containing moldy food.” They also found 11 guns along with knives, swords and ammunition. The man told the officers that he had the weapons “so he could be prepared for the next war to begin.” As they searched the home, he told officers outside that “even more black men were inside the home then he first reported and described them as three-legged dwarves with one of their legs being a roller skate they used to escape from places.”

Police confiscated 23 weapons from the man’s home and took him to EMH Regional Medical Center for evaluation. They also contacted the Nord Center, a provider of mental health services.

The Lorain County Sheriff’s Office has confirmed that it issued the man a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Ohio is a “shall-issue” state, meaning that authorities have to issue a concealed carry permit to any applicant who passes a basic computerized background check. Federal law prohibits anyone who has been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution from owning or purchasing firearms. At last count, however, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) was missing 90% of the mental health records that would disqualify Americans who fall under these two categories. The Virginia Tech Review Panel dealt directly with these issues and recommended that the states forward all necessary mental health records to NICS as promptly as possible, and that new legislation be enacted to prohibit those who have been voluntarily committed to mental institutions from owning or purchasing firearms.

If they have not been adjudicated incompetent by the court system, we have no choice but to issue a license,” said Lorain County Sheriff’s Captain Richard Resendez. “The law does not give us the ability to act on our instincts.” Capt. Resendez has indicated the man’s permit will be suspended, but said, “it would likely take a court finding him mentally incompetent to permanently revoke it.”

There is no guarantee that will happen. A 2003 presidential commission on mental health concluded that: “For too many Americans with mental illnesses, the mental health services and supports they need remain fragmented, disconnected and often inadequate, frustrating the opportunity for recovery. Today’s mental health care system is a patchwork relic—the result of disjointed reforms and policies. Instead of ready access to quality care, the system presents barriers that all too often add to the burden of mental illnesses for individuals, their families, and our communities.”

Given the imperfect nature of background checks and the mental health system, legislators in “shall-issue” states would do far better to prioritize public safety over the wishes of a vocal minority who seek to carry guns in public. Tying the hands of law enforcement officers who are well-placed to determine potential threats to their communities makes little sense.

May 18, 2009

“It was almost like looking in the devil’s eyes.”

On March 10, 28 year-old Michael McLendon began a shooting rampage at the ranch-style home in Coffee County, Alabama, where he lived with his mother. First, he shot and killed her and her four dogs, then laid them on and around the living room couch, which he soaked with paint thinner and lit on fire.

McLendon then got into his Mitsubishi Eclipse wearing a vest loaded with ammunition and armed with a .38 caliber handgun, a shotgun, and two assault rifles (an SKS and a Bushmaster). He drove south to the town of Samson to a white frame house where he had lived for years with his uncle, James White, 55, and aunt, Phyllis White. The two were sitting on the porch with their daughter, Tracy M. Wise, 34, her son, Dean, 15, and a family that lived across the street: Andrea Myers, 31 (the wife of a local sheriff’s deputy), and her two children, 4-month old Ella and 18-month old Corrine. McLendon’s great aunt, Virginia White, 74, was in a trailer parked in the White’s yard. McLendon exited his vehicle and opened fire on them all, killing everyone but Phyllis White and Ella Myers. Phyllis White ran to a neighbor’s house and was saved when McLendon’s gun jammed. Ella was rescued by a neighbor, but had to be taken to a hospital later for surgery for a gunshot/shrapnel injury. A neighbor who saw McLendon as he pulled away from the house in his Eclipse said of him: “It was almost like looking in the devil’s eyes.”

But McLendon was not done yet. He killed another man, James Starling, 24, on a nearby street, shooting him in the back as he tried to run away. Starling was the father of two children and had another on the way. McLendon then rounded the corner and killed Sonya Smith, 43, outside a convenience store. Two men, Jeffrey Nelson, 50, and Greg McCullough, 49, were injured at the store.

McLendon then continued on to the town of Geneva. At this point, police were in pursuit of him. McLendon was still spraying fire, and killed motorist Bruce Malloy, 51. When an officer tried to ram McLendon’s Eclipse, he fired into the officer’s vehicle, narrowly missing him. McLendon then evaded a roadblock and drove to Reliable Products, a metals plant where he once worked. There he engaged in a shootout with law enforcement officers before finally entering the business, turning a gun on himself, and taking his own life.

During the entire rampage, which lasted approximately 50 minutes, McLendon fired more than 200 rounds, killed 10 innocent people, and wounded six.

Subsequent investigation revealed that McLendon held a permit to carry a concealed handgun which had been issued by the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department. A friend of his, Cecil Knowles, told reporters that McLendon had a lifelong fascination with guns. Officials have yet to indicate where McLendon purchased the firearms used in the shootings, but have indicated they were all bought legally.

After the rampage, authorities who investigated the home McLendon lived in with his mother found notes he had left on a dresser and kitchen table. “The notes had lists of co-employees and employers who apparently had done him wrong,” said 12th Judicial Circuit District Attorney Gary McAliley. “Along side of the names, he wrote notes on who had done what, for example, ‘turned me in for not wearing earplugs.’ The note also listed three different locations of employers.” Investigators also found 20 to 30 boxes of ammunition, a bullet-proof vest, and “dozens of soot-covered DVDs on how to commit acts of violence, including how to shoot into a moving car and building a homemade gun silencer.” McLendon stopped showing up to his job shortly before the rampage, spent his free time shooting guns at the local firing range and behind his home, and talked “about being depressed about his failure to become a Marine or a police officer.” He had also been involved in an argument with family members over custody of a family Bible, and had recently received a letter from a lawyer representing another family member telling him to back off. “He was excessively upset about that,” said McAliley.

He had obviously planned to go out in grand style,” observed Colonel Chris Murphy of the Alabama Department of Public Safety.

Disturbingly, McLendon is not the only mass shooter in recent months who held a concealed carry permit:

These incidents and others provide powerful evidence that screening procedures for concealed carry permit holders are as minimal and ineffective as those for gun purchasers in the United States. Hopefully, state legislators across the country will begin putting the safety of their citizens ahead of the interests of the gun lobby, which has consistently defended existing standards for permit holders—and even acted to weaken them further.

April 20, 2009

"This Kid's Nothing But Trouble."

On April 4, 23 year-old Richard Poplawski shot and killed three police officers who were responding to a 911 call at his home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Poplawski, wearing a bulletproof vest and armed with a shotgun and an AK-47-style assault rifle, ambushed two officers who entered his house. He then managed to hold off police and SWAT team members who responded to the scene for four hours, firing approximately 100 rounds in the process. Poplawski has been charged with three counts of criminal homicide and nine counts of attempted homicide, including the wounding of a policeman who was trying to assist a fallen officer.

It was quickly learned that Poplawski is a White Supremacist with a long and disturbing history of violent behavior. He frequently visited, and posted messages at, the Neo-Nazi website Stormfront.org. Poplawski’s best friend, Edward Perkovic, stated that he “didn't like the Zionists controlling the media and controlling, you know, our freedom of speech.” On November 1, 2008, Poplawski wrote on Stormfront: “A revolutionary is always regarded as a nutcase at first, their ideas dismissed as fantasy ... If a total collapse is what it takes to wake our brethren and guarantee future generations of white children walk this continent, if that is what it takes to restore our freedoms and recapture our land: let it begin this very second and not a moment later.”

Poplawski’s problems date further back, however. He was expelled from North Catholic High School in his junior year for reasons that have not been fully disclosed. In 2004, Poplawski enlisted in the Marines and entered boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. He was discharged from the service just 23 days later, apparently for assaulting a drill sergeant. A year later, Poplawski’s former girlfriend, Melissa Gladish, received a protection from abuse order against him. “He was a violent, abusive man,” she said. “He dragged me by the hair, pulling me across the floor. I saw him choke his own mother. He was controlling.”

Despite this history, subsequent investigation has revealed that Poplawski passed the required background checks and bought his shotgun and two handguns at Braverman Arms Company in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. Poplawski’s best friend, Edward Perkovic, has also reported that Poplawski possessed a permit to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Pennsylvania. "I've seen it. He showed it to me. He said, 'Eddie, get one of these,'" remembers Perkovic. Poplawski also posted on the Pennsylvania Firearm Owners Association website under the username “RWhiteman” and in one thread complained that the state of Maryland did not recognize his concealed carry permit when he traveled there.

If Poplawski was dishonorably discharged from the military (citing privacy laws, the Marines have refused to divulge this information), then he would have been barred under federal law from owning or purchasing firearms. He also would have been barred under federal law from purchasing or owning firearms while he was the subject of Melissa Gladish’s protection order. It is unclear at this time exactly when Poplawski purchased his guns. It is also not known where he obtained his AK-47 assault rifle, although he frequently bought and sold guns online through unregulated private sales.

What is more baffling is how Pennsylvania authorities could have issued Poplawski a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Pennsylvania is a "shall issue" state, meaning that local law enforcement must issue a concealed weapons license if the applicant passes a computerized background check and meets certain basic qualifications. Nonetheless, these guidelines state clearly that an applicant should be denied a permit if he/she “has a character and reputation indicating the applicant would be likely to act in a manner dangerous to public safety.”

Poplawski not a threat to public safety? Even a cursory investigation into his background would have revealed that he was a violent individual with racist, anti-government views. In the words of one of Poplawski’s neighbors (whose stepdaughter was threatened by him), “this kid's nothing but trouble.” Why that wasn’t patently obvious to Pennsylvania authorities is worth examining.

March 30, 2009

The Fake Cop

On March 5, at 9:50 a.m., a woman traveling south on U.S. 1 in Florida saw 25-year-old John T. Colucci race by her on a motorcycle, pull up next to a white pickup truck at a stoplight, and begin threatening the driver of the vehicle. “I’m a [expletive] cop, you could have laid me out on the street,” Colluci was quoted as saying, as he simultaneously raised his jacket and exposed a handgun. Colluci then held a badge in his wallet up at the truck driver and screamed, “I’m a [expletive] cop!” He then sped off on his motorcycle "pulling his front wheel off the ground."

The woman followed Colucci to the Port St. Lucie Civic Center while dialing 911 on her cell phone. Colucci, noticing that he was being followed, turned around and raced towards her vehicle as if he was “playing a game of chicken.” The woman was “terrified of a head-on collision,” but thankfully Colluci turned his motorcycle and sped away from the scene.

Investigators later apprehended Colucci at the Self Defense Gun Shop and Pistol Range in Port St. Lucie, where he worked. He denied knowing anything about the incident, but admitted to having a “security badge” in his wallet. The badge looked almost identical to the badges worn by Port St. Lucie Police Department officers. Colucci was arrested and charged with falsely impersonating an officer, openly carrying a weapon, unlawfully using a police insignia, and driving recklessly. Police confiscated his Glock 30 handgun and “security badge.”

A call to the Public Affairs Office at the Port St. Lucie Police Department confirmed that Colucci holds a permit to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Florida. Due to a law passed at the behest of the NRA that shields the identities of permit holders in the state , however, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services refused to say whether Colucci’s permit had been suspended or revoked by authorities.

That might leave residents of Port St. Lucie unsettled, because Colucci is currently out of jail on $3,500 bail. A court date is expected to be set sometime soon.

It is ironic that an individual who works for the “Self Defense Shooting Center” would use his handgun instead to intimidate and threaten the residents of his own community. If Florida officials have respect for the brave men and women who have taken an oath “to serve and protect” as law enforcement officers in the Sunshine State—and even a passing interest in safeguarding public safety—they will make sure this fake cop never carries a concealed weapon again.

March 16, 2009

If at First You Don't Succeed...

On Valentine’s Day, 35 year-old Frank Garcia drove into the parking lot of the Lakeside Memorial Hospital parking lot in Brockport, New York, at approximately 5:00 AM. Just four days earlier, Garcia had been fired from his nursing position at the hospital, and he wasted little time before exiting his vehicle and physically attacking Mary Silliman, 23, a former co-worker who was on a break. Two individuals who were driving by the hospital at that moment, Randal Norman and Audra Dillion, saw Garcia beating Silliman and stopped to help. When they got out of their car, Garcia opened fire with a .40-caliber Glock pistol, killing Norman and Silliman. Audra Dillion was also shot, but she managed to drive herself to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, where she recovered from her injuries.

Garcia was not done yet. He then drove 50 miles to Canandaigua, New York, where he went door-to door looking for the home of another former co-worker. Garcia eventually found Kimberly Glatz and her husband Christopher and shot the couple execution-style after terrorizing the entire family, including Glatz’s 14 year-old daughter and 13 year-old son. Kimberly Glatz worked with Garcia while he was a part-time nursing supervisor at Wesley Gardens nursing home in Rochester. Garcia was fired from this position in October 2008.

The rampage finally ended when Garcia was arrested after negotiating his surrender by cell phone. He has been charged with a total of four counts of first-degree murder, two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of second-degree kidnapping, and one count of attempted murder.

After the shootings, it was revealed that Garcia possessed a permit to carry a concealed handgun in New York. Officials reportedly denied Garcia’s request for a permit three times before granting him one in 2007. He was first denied a permit in 1994 after omitting information about his criminal record on his application, including arrests for criminal possession of a weapon, assault, and harassment. He then filed two more permit requests in 2001 and 2006 that were denied because of “omission[s] of fact” and because it was determined that Garcia “lack[ed] moral character.”

In a letter written prior to the 2001 denial, Garcia told a local judge about his enjoyment of the “works of Jefferson, J. locke, madison, and Hamilton” and “the organic Constitution and the Bill of Rights.” Garcia also discusses his need to protect himself with a gun in light of his view that “executive atthoraties/police officers are not bond to protect me. 95% of the time there are in pursut of the perpetrator and 5% arrive late when needed. So you see. I have no-one but myself for my own protection, especially in the city of Rochester.” At the end of the letter, Garcia offers to produce “Public-law 89-297” at an upcoming hearing, which, he claims, “calls for the total disarmament of our sovereign nation, from citizens to the military. This is all part of the New world order agenda.”

Garcia’s successful 2007 request for a permit was initially denied. However, judicial hearing officer and longtime Judge Charles Maloy reversed the denial and granted Garcia the right to carry a concealed weapon. The county court judge who initially denied the permit had the right to review the case but instead signed the permit in April 2007.

Judge Maloy has yet to explain why he issued Garcia a concealed carry permit, but it is clear that this permit offered no “protection” to Garcia or anyone else. Instead, it endangered an entire community that has now paid a terrible and unimaginable price.

February 23, 2009

Parking Violation

On February 6 in Memphis, Tennessee, Robert “Dutch” Scherwin was leaving Villa Castrioti, a restaurant where he and his three children were celebrating the birthdays of his father and father-in-law. In the restaurant’s parking lot, Scherwin began arguing with Harry Coleman and his wife about how close Coleman’s Hummer was parked next to his car, a GMC Yukon Denali. According to Scherwin’s son, the argument boiled over, leading Coleman to reach into the Hummer for his handgun. Coleman then shot Scherwin, who was unarmed, in the torso. Scherwin died in the parking lot in front of his three children.

One witness at the scene, Joseph Sneed, tried to intervene during the argument but backed off when Coleman drove his handgun into his chest. "From seeing the look in his eyes, without him saying it, I felt he was telling me, 'I'm going to kill this man. If you decide to get in the way, you're going to get hurt, too,’” said Sneed.

Police found the handgun used in the shooting in Coleman’s back pocket when he was taken into custody. Coleman, 59, was granted permit to carry a concealed handgun by the state of Tennessee in 2006. That permit has now been suspended. In addition, Coleman faces second-degree murder charges for the slaying of Scherwin. He has been released from jail after posting $50,000 bond and has indicated he will plead innocent to the charges and argue that he acted in self-defense.

Scherwin’s death has made orphans out of his three children: Dallas, 21, Colt, 19, and Savannah, 15. Their mother passed away in 2004 due to complications from rheumatoid arthritis.

Four days after the shooting, Shelby County Mayor A.C. Wharton publicly called for a statewide gun offender registry and felony penalties for first-time offenders who illegally carry guns. Though not without merit, it is unclear how either measure would have prevented Robert Scherwin’s death. Furthermore, Mayor Wharton curiously failed to mention the extensive problems experienced by Tennessee’s concealed carry permitting system. An investigation by the Memphis Commercial Appeal revealed that the Tennessee Department of Safety sent out 99 permit-revocation letters in 2008 to individuals who had successfully renewed permits despite being disqualified from owning firearms due to felony convictions, DUI charges, orders of protection, etc. Mayor Wharton might have also drawn attention to the minimal training requirements for Tennessee concealed carry permit holders—a one-day, one-time class that typically lasts 10 hours.

Shortly after his brother was shot and killed, Butch Schwerin wondered, "Why did it have to escalate? This was a parking space. All you had to do was go out and move your car. That would have been the end of it, not my brother being murdered." Clearly, had a gun not been present, the result of the argument between Robert Scherwin and Harry Coleman would have been, at worst, a fistfight. Nonetheless, there has been no indication from Tennessee’s elected or appointed officials that they are ready—or willing—to address Butch Schwerin’s important question.

January 26, 2009

Bottoms Up

On January 13, a 26 year-old Salt Lake City man was using the restroom of a local restaurant when his concealed handgun went off unintentionally. The gun, a .40-caliber Kahr P40, apparently fell out of the man’s pants as he was pulling them up, hit the tile floor, and fired. The bullet struck the toilet beneath him, sending sharp pieces of porcelain flying. Some of this shrapnel lodged in the man’s arm, causing minor injuries. While no one else was hurt, an employee of the restaurant in the next-door women’s restroom was treated for chest pains after hearing the gun shot and panicking.

The man, whose name is being withheld by authorities, holds a permit to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Utah. Utah is a “shall issue” state, meaning that concealed carry permits are issued to applicants who pass a background check and complete four hours of firearm safety training.

According to Centreville Police Lieutenant Paul Child, “the accident would have been prevented if the man had used a secure holster. A good quality firearm also should not fire if it is dropped.” Several visitors to the Deseret News website, however, questioned why an individual would need to have a loaded handgun in the bathroom of a fast food restaurant.

Police confiscated the man’s handgun at the scene, but have indicated that the firearm will soon be released back to him. No charges have been pressed against him nor is there any indication that authorities will seek to revoke his concealed carry permit. There is apparently little concern that the man could have killed an innocent bystander, or that he violated several of the National Rifle Association’s most basic gun safety rules, including “ALWAYS keep the gun unloaded until ready to use” and “Remember, a gun's mechanical safety device is never foolproof. Nothing can ever replace safe gun handling.”

One Deseret News commenter mocked the gun lobby’s talking points in capturing the absurdity of the incident: “Guns don't kill people,” he/she said. “Toilets do.”