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August 16, 2010

Cold as Ice

In 2009, there were six confirmed mass shootings by concealed handgun permit holders in the United States (mass shootings are shootings that involve three or more deaths). 2010 has seen this disturbing trend continue, with deranged and dangerous individuals gaining easy access to firearms and carry permits. In a recent tragedy, a Connecticut gun owner who was supposed to be an upstanding, law-abiding citizen revealed himself to be a soulless, cold-blooded killer.

According to his girlfriend, Omar Thornton went to work at Hartford Distributors on August 3 as if it was any other day. When he was called into his supervisors’ office he seemed calm and collected. After his bosses showed him and a union official a video of Thornton stealing more than $400 worth of beer and empty kegs from a truck he was driving for the company, he was given the choice of being fired or resigning. Thornton quietly signed his letter of resignation.

While being escorted out of the room, Thornton asked for a drink of water. Seconds later, he retrieved a handgun from a lunch bag and shot his two escorts, initiating a deadly rampage. Company Vice President Steve Hollander recalled that, “[Thornton] didn't yell. He was cold as ice. He didn't protest when we were meeting with him to show him the video of him stealing. He didn't contest it. He didn't complain. He didn't argue. He didn't admit or deny anything. He just agreed to resign. And then he just unexplainably pulled out his gun and started blasting.”

It was 7:00 AM—shift change time—when 50-70 employees were entering and exiting the building. Thornton walked through the building methodically, firing on his co-workers. He killed eight and wounded two before taking his own life.

911 dispatchers received a phone call from Thornton just before he committed suicide. “This is a racist place,” he said. “They treat me bad over here. They treat all other black employees bad over here, too ... I wish I could’ve gotten more of the people.” Secretary/Treasurer of Teamsters Local 1035 Chris Roos reported that, “There is nothing on record of any complaints from Omar [regarding racism at Hartford Distributors] and there had been no disciplinary actions with him prior to this.” No formal complaints have ever been made against Hartford employees or management for being racist.

Police reported that Thornton brought two 9mm handguns to work that day in his lunch bag, including a SR9 Ruger semiautomatic handgun, which he told dispatchers was one of his “favorites.” Police also found a shotgun in Thornton’s car in the company parking lot. The handguns were registered (along with three other handguns that Thornton had at home) and all the firearms were legally purchased. According to Thornton’s girlfriend’s mother, Joanne Hannah, Thornton possessed a concealed handgun permit in Connecticut and was planning to teach her daughter how to use a handgun. Thornton listed Hoffman’s Gun Center & Indoor Range in Newington, Connecticut, as one of his Likes on his Facebook page.

Almost immediately after the shooting, commenters at the Connecticut Gun Talk Forum were blaming the tragedy on a “gun-free zone.” “You know someone had to say this, but if someone there [at Hartford Distributors] had been carrying there would probably have been fewer people shot,” said “Gun Techie.” He failed to note that Omar Thornton himself held a valid concealed handgun permit under Connecticut’s “May-Issue” law, and would have been one of the individuals authorized to bring a gun to work to “defend” his co-workers under such a plan.

“Rich_B” went even further than “Gun Techie,” placing the blaming directly on Hartford Distributors: “It should be illegal to make a workplace a 'gun free zone' (otherwise known as a 'victim rich zone') for employees unless the company is willing to take on the burden and liability of providing an adequate defense against bad things happening to its employees while they are on the premises.” He then suggested that the concealed handgun permitting process be eliminated altogether in Connecticut because, “All it does is make a hurdle for people to exercise their right to defend themselves.”

Then “Rich_B” added something truly interesting. “You cannot prevent bad people from getting a permit or a gun because bad people haven't always been caught or shown signs of being bad yet,” he pointed out.

No clear distinctions between “good guys” and “bad guys”? It makes one wonder how arming more people under our current laws could possibly make our society safer...

August 9, 2010

"A Coarsening of Society"

A fascinating story was featured this month on the cover of Harper’s Magazine. Entitled “Happiness is a Worn Gun: My Concealed Weapon and Me,” the article was written by author Dan Baum, a “fairly typical liberal Democrat” who recently obtained a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Colorado. Baum’s article provides a balanced and insightful perspective on the culture that surrounds the gun rights community.

In the piece, Baum traces his 49-year love affair with firearms, which dates back to the summers he spent at camp firing a .22 caliber rifle as an overweight child. As an adult gun owner, Baum readily admits that, “The sensual pleasure of handling guns is a big part of the habit ... They are deeply satisfying to manipulate, even without shooting.” After deciding that hunting and range-shooting was not allowing him to be close enough to his firearms (Baum wanted to “live the gun life”), he decided to apply for a permit to carry a concealed weapon in his home state of Colorado.

A Right to Instant Gratification
In Colorado, just as in 37 other “Shall-Issue” states, the state must issue a permit to carry a concealed handgun to any citizen that passes an instant computer background check and meets a basic set of requirements. One of those requirements is to complete just three hours of training through an approved handgun safety course. This course need be taken only once—no additional training is required when a permit holder renews his/her permit every five years.

Baum, to his credit, went beyond the required three hours of training and took two separate handgun safety courses over the course of five days. He hoped to receive serious instruction as he took on the weighty and dangerous responsibility of carrying a weapon in public. In practice however, Baum found that his two classes “taught [him] almost nothing about how to defend [himself] with a gun” and “were less about self-defense than about recruiting [applicants] into a culture animated by fear of violent crime.”

At his first training class in Boulder, Baum’s instructor “packed about twenty minutes of useful instruction into four long evenings of platitudes, Obama jokes, and belligerent posturing.” He also openly admitted to breaking the law, saying he refused to get a carry permit because “I don’t think I have to get the government’s permission to exercise my right to bear arms.” A police officer taught the class a “legal implications” segment and encouraged the applicants to lie to police if stopped while wearing their guns. He then told the class that even though it is illegal to shoot a fleeing criminal, “If your aim is good enough, you have time to get your story straight before I get there.” The class was shown “lurid films of men in ski masks breaking into homes occupied by terrified women” and spent time examining pictures of a man that had been “slashed open with a knife.” In the course of four evenings, the applicants only handled their firearms once—shooting about 50 rounds at targets approximately 15 feet away.

Baum’s second class was at the Tanner gun show in Denver (the same place where Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold obtained their firearms). Baum described it as a “fifteen-minute recruiting pitch for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and a long-winded, paranoid fantasy about home invasion ... ‘They know where your bedroom is, and they’re there to kill you.’” The irony in this, as Baum states, is that only 87 Americans were murdered during home burglaries in 2008: “Statistically, you had a better chance of being killed by bees.”

While Baum asserts that American citizens should be able to carry concealed weapons in public, he was deeply disturbed by his experience with the permitting process in Colorado, stating that, “It’s a scandal...that people can get a license to carry on the basis of a three hour ‘course’ given at a gun show. State requirements vary, but some don’t even ask students to fire a weapon before getting a carry permit.” Baum recommends that state governments “enforce high standards for instruction, including extensive live firing, role-playing, and serious examination of the legal issues ... States should [also] require a refresher course, the way Texas does, before renewing a carry permit.” Furthermore, “Since people can carry guns state to state, standards should be uniform.” As Baum notes, “The Second Amendment confers a right to keep and bear arms. It does not confer a right to instant gratification.”

A Different Mentality
An obsession with violent crime (“At class, it was hard to discern the line between preparing for something awful to happen and praying for something awful to happen”) is just one element of a gun culture that Baum found himself immersed in once he decided to carry a handgun in public. In Baum’s words, “Anyone who tells you he has no fantasy life constructed around his gun either has been packing it for as long as he’s been watching television or is flat-out lying.”

Another element is paranoia that national “gun confiscation is nigh.” Baum recalled a man selling Yugoslav AK-47s at the Tanner gun show and yelling, “Buy it now! Tomorrow they may not let you!” “You don’t think [Obama’s] waiting for his second term to come and get them?” he asked Baum. “You’re dreaming.” To Baum, such fears seem wildly exaggerated: “For as long as I’ve been voting, I’ve reflexively supported waiting periods, background checks, the assault-rifle ban, and other gun control measures. None interfered with my enjoyment of firearms, and none seemed to me to be the first step toward tyranny.”

Baum recalled another gun show dealer yelling to potential customers, “Liberals want to take away your gun and your McDonald’s both.” Baum discovered a “class-based resentment that permeates modern gun culture,” citing an editorial in the NRA’s America’s First Freedom magazine that characterized their opposition as “those who sip tea and nibble biscuits while musing about how to restrict the rest of us.”

Then there are the color-coded “conditions of readiness” that concealed handgun permit holders govern themselves by. Condition White is “total oblivion to one’s surroundings—sleeping, being drunk or stoned, losing oneself in conversation while walking in city streets, texting while listening to an iPod.” Condition Yellow is “being aware of, and taking an interest in, one’s surroundings—essentially, the mental state we are encouraged to achieve when we are driving.” It requires “being mentally prepared to kill.” Condition Orange is being aware of a possible threat and Condition Red is responding to danger.

Baum notes that “contempt for Condition White unifies the gun-carrying community almost as much as does fealty to the Second Amendment.” He was told by one of his Boulder instructors that “when you’re in Condition White you’re a sheep.” The American Tactical Shooting Association notes that the only time you should be in Condition White is “when in your own home, with the doors locked, the alarm system on, and your dog at your feet.” Gun carriers are instructed to be in Condition Yellow at all times.

After experiencing Condition Yellow for months, however, Baum found it to be “kind of exhausting.” He missed Condition White. “Condition White may make us sheep, but it’s also where art happens,” Baum says. “It’s where we daydream, reminisce and hear music in our heads. Hardcore gun carriers want no part of that.”

Drinking the Kool-Aid
Despite being critical about several aspects of the gun culture, Baum simultaneously seems to endorse some of its most well-worn talking points. In a recent radio interview, he argues that guns laws are “not going to keep guns out of the hands of the people that you don’t want to have them” and therefore “only really apply to the law-abiding.” He also suggests that “Shall-Issue” laws have had no negative effect on public safety. In making these claims, Baum examines long-term trends in violent crime rates in the U.S., but curiously fails to comment on gun death rates or compare America to other industrialized democracies. Gun violence prevention organizations do not argue that guns cause crime, but rather that the presence of guns makes attempted crimes, attempted suicides, and arguments/confrontations of all kinds more lethal.

One recent study found that U.S. homicide rates were 6.9 times higher than rates in 23 other high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that were 19.5 times higher. These 23 nations uniformly have fewer guns per capita than the United States and far tougher gun laws. An examination of gun death rates within the United States finds that states with tough gun laws (including “May-Issue” concealed carry laws) like Hawaii, New York and New Jersey have the lowest gun death rates. States with weak laws (and “Shall-Issue” concealed carry laws) like Louisiana, Alaska and Nevada have the highest. This data provides little support for the notion that “an armed society is a polite society.”

Baum also erroneously states, “Young black urban men killing each other—that is the gun problem [in the U.S.] right now.” In reality, the claim that gun violence is a “black problem" hardly makes sense when one considers that out of the 31,446 gun deaths that occurred in America in 2005, 21,958 of the victims were whites, and from 1976 to 2005, 86% of white murder victims were killed by whites. Additionally, in 2008 the FBI reported 14,180 gun deaths, only 844 of which were gang related. The ten states with the highest rates of gun death per capita in the U.S. in 2007 were Louisiana, Mississippi, Alaska, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Tennessee, New Mexico, Arizona and West Virginia—predominantly rural states.

Finally, while acknowledging that “a lot of gun rights people are like the Taliban, if you don’t agree with them on absolutely everything you’re a friend of tyranny and a monster,” Baum does not fully grasp the political consequences of the gun rights movement’s agenda. He fails to perceive the “Insurrectionist Idea” that animates the movement—namely, the belief that the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to confront “tyrannical” government with force of arms. Insurrectionists will naturally oppose any laws that allow government oversight of firearms ownership because they want to remain anonymous should they one day decide to wage war against our government. As Cato Institute analyst David Kopel puts it, “The tools of political dissent should be privately owned and unregistered.”

Insurrectionism is a far-right-wing ideology that opposes a strong, activist government in nearly all of its forms and, as such, presents a threat to the broader progressive agenda that Baum claims to support. Baum recently got the cold shoulder when his Harper's article was featured at "The Truth About Guns" blog. Author Robert Farago and commenters at the blog called Baum into question over "the obvious conflict of interest between his liberal upbringing and the consequences of his acceptance of gun ownership," with one reader comparing the current Democratic Leadership in Congress to Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Heinrich Himmler.

Not a Prop
Baum has decided that he will probably stop carrying his handgun in public. “It’s uncomfortable, distracting, and freaks out my friends; it’s not worth it,” he says. Baum felt that carrying his gun had “militarized [his] life” and brought out impulses in him that he disliked, including “social pessimism” and “irrational fear” (“You don’t want to contribute to a coarsening of society by preparing to kill at a moment’s notice”). Ultimately, he had to remind himself that his gun “is not a prop, a political statement, or a rhetorical device, but an instrument designed to blow a ragged channel through a human being.”

August 2, 2010

Shooting Buddies

The National Rifle Association has long perpetuated the myth that Americans are under grave danger from hardened criminals who want to steal their property and exterminate their families. Whether it’s ridiculous pronouncements like, “America, by its free and independent nature, is a breeding ground and safe haven for violent, illegal immigrant criminal gangs,” or morbid declarations such as, “I want carjackers dead. I want rapists dead. I want burglars dead. I want child molesters dead. I want the bad guys dead. No court case. No parole. No early release. I want 'em dead. Get a gun and when they attack you, shoot 'em," the NRA rarely misses an opportunity to stoke the paranoia of the gun industry’s customer base.

The truth is, however, that Americans are far more likely to be harmed by people they know in their everyday lives than faceless criminals. Far too often, perpetrators of homicide are family members, friends, significant others, co-workers, and acquaintances of their victims…and even fellow gun owners, as a recent story from Ohio tragically reveals.

On July 5, Mark Valentino was arrested and charged for the murder of his cousin and friend Hershell “Louis” Roberts in Licking County. Valentino admitted to shooting Roberts as well as stealing firearms and money from his home.

Sherriff Randy Thorp stated that Valentino and Roberts shared a love of target practice and often fired guns on a range in Roberts’ backyard. Roberts’ son-in-law, Jake Morgan, said that Valentino often took advantage of Roberts’ hospitality and generosity—Valentino would stay at his home for weeks at a time. Roberts was apparently either unaware of, or unconcerned about, Valentino’s Indiana criminal record, which included probation violations, bad checks, and even domestic violence.

When Roberts was found dead at his home, his 20 year-old son told investigators that Valentino had a long-standing interest in his father’s missing gun collection. Allegedly, Valentino shot Roberts after a dispute regarding two guns that Valentino sought for their value. “He needed the money that bad,” Morgan said. “[Roberts] would have given it to him, if [he] had it.” Morgan described Valentino as a man “with no conscience.”

Police arrested Valentino after a 15-mile pursuit that concluded when Valentino lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a ditch. According to Licking County Prosecutor Ken Oswalt, Roberts’ firearms and the suspected murder weapon were found in the vehicle in the resulting search.

Valentino’s story bears eerie similarity to that of another individual “with no conscience” who preyed on a fellow gun enthusiast: Timothy McVeigh.

McVeigh bombed the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, an act of terrorism which claimed 168 lives and injured more than 680 people. Well before the bombing, McVeigh was a regular on the gun show circuit, where he sold firearms through unregulated private sales (no background checks, no records of sale). While working at gun shows, McVeigh befriended an Arkansas gun dealer named Roger Moore. Moore testified that McVeigh stayed in his home from time to time as he traveled around the country. According to police, in order to fund the Oklahoma City bombing, McVeigh and Terry Nichols—his co-conspirator in the bombing—robbed Moore of his gun collection while holding him at gunpoint. Moore claims that he lost $60,000 worth of guns, jewels, silver bars and gold coins in the robbery.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, only 87 Americans were murdered during burglaries in 2008, despite the fact that only one out of every three American households now has a firearm. As one author recently noted, “Statistically, you had a better chance of being killed by bees.” There were 7,912 homicides in 2008 for which the FBI could establish a relationship between the murderer and the victim. 78% (6,170) of these victims knew their murderer—only 22% (1,742) were murdered by a stranger. Not only do 78% of victims know their murderer—43% of homicides are caused by simple arguments over money, property and other mundane matters. In comparison, only 9% of murders are gang-related.

The NRA’s scare tactics regarding the “criminal element” are an effective sales pitch and certainly better the gun industry. If an American is convinced that their family is under overwhelming threat from unknown outsiders, a gun purchase will seem like a wonderful idea, and he/she will certainly underestimate the harm that that gun could cause within their home while in the hands of someone they know and/or love.

Stories like that of Mark Valentino and Louis Roberts betray the NRA’s version of “reality,” depicting common scenarios where the “home invader” is someone you’ve welcomed in countless times, and where your firepower makes you a potential target and not someone to be avoided.

July 13, 2010

Children in the Line of Fire

The United States, with its weak gun laws, remains an exceptionally dangerous place for children. Approximately nine children and teenagers die every day from gun violence in America. In any given year, the U.S. loses more than 3,000 children and teens to gun violence; a number greater than the number of Americans that were killed in the 9/11 attacks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American children age 14 and below are sixteen times more likely than children in other industrialized nations to be murdered with a gun, eleven times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die from firearms accidents.

A spate of recent tragedies reminds us that children remain vulnerable even when their parents are among the most highly qualified gun owners in America—concealed handgun permit holders. For years, the gun lobby has told us that permit holders are some of the most law-abiding and responsible citizens in the country. The problem is that in approximately 40 states, little is done in terms of screening or training requirements to assure that this is the case.

  • On January 8, Jaritza Alvarado’s eight year-old son Jose found her 9mm handgun and tragically shot himself in the chest. Alvarado, a resident of Allentown, held a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Pennsylvania. The boy’s father told police that the previous night he had seen the gun on the dresser in the couple’s bedroom. Just before going to bed, he grabbed the weapon, loaded it, racked a round into the chamber, and placed it in a backpack on the floor of the room. That backpack belonged to Jose, who stored his video games inside it. The following morning, as his parents slept, Jose opened the backpack to find the handgun sitting on top of his games. He fatally shot himself, waking them up immediately. After searching the home, police found an extra gun magazine in a kitchen cabinet, next to a two-liter bottle of soda that had a hidden compartment used to store cocaine.

  • Marine Sergeant Colton Lumon was at home with his wife and two daughters on February 21. As nine month-old Makenna sat in her high chair eating fruit, Colton practiced drawing and “dry firing” his handgun at candles across the room. During one draw he applied too much pressure to the weapon and it accidentally discharged, striking Makenna in the hand and head. She was pronounced dead two hours later. Colton had a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Virginia and told police he kept his weapon loaded with a bullet in the chamber at all times.

  • On February 27, 11 year-old Randy Reddick, Jr. was accidentally shot and killed in front of his home in Deerfield Beach, Florida. Earlier that day, his father, Randy Reddick, Sr.—a concealed handgun permit holder—had removed his 40-caliber Glock pistol and placed it in the center console of his truck before entering the post office. When the family returned home later that day, Randy Sr. sent Randy Jr. and his 10 year-old son outside to get his coat from the truck. The 10 year-old found the gun, which had been left in the truck, and accidentally shot his brother in the head, killing him instantly.

None of the three states in which these tragedies occurred—Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida—require any real training for concealed handgun permit holders. Pennsylvania requires no training whatsoever. Virginia requires applicants to take a one-hour online test (applicants watch a 1/2-hour video and then answer a 20-question multiple-choice test at the website). Florida requires three hours of classroom instruction. Once satisfied a single time, the Virginia and Florida requirements are good for life. Additionally, none of these states have any mandatory safe storage requirements for firearms kept in homes where minors are present.

The results, sadly, are predictable: Unnecessary and heartbreaking tragedies that claim the most precious and vulnerable members of our society. We could—and should—be doing a lot more to protect children like Jose Alvarado, Makenna Lumon and Randy Rennick, Jr. It is a stain on our nation’s conscience that we are not.

July 6, 2010

Terrorists' Right to Carry

Political violence is not an abstract concept in America, as a series of incidents this year has dramatized. The Department of Homeland Security has warned the nation that a dramatic increase in right-wing extremism since the election of President Obama increases the potential for domestic terrorism. The number of armed militias in America has increased a staggering 200% since 2008.

Recently, the U.S. Congress looked at why those on the FBI’s “Terrorist Watch List” can be prevented from boarding a plane, but not from purchasing firearms. Indeed, experience has shown that terrorists have little or no problems acquiring virtual arsenals of firearms in America, often legally. Something that has flown beneath the public radar, however, is how easy it is for terrorists to obtain permits to carry concealed handguns.

In March, nine members of the “Hutaree,” a Michigan-based militia group, were arrested for allegedly plotting to kill a law enforcement officer and then ambush police at the subsequent funeral with guns and explosives. Federal agents found a cache of firearms (including fully-automatic machine guns and unregistered short-barreled rifles), a variety of explosives, and more than 148,000 rounds of ammunition at just one of the homes they searched. Additionally, according to public records made available by the Ohio Sheriff’s office, at least two of the Hutaree members charged—Kristopher T. Sickles and Jacob J. Ward—had legally obtained concealed handgun permits in Ohio (most of the other charged members live in Michigan where the public is prohibited from accessing such records). Judge Victoria A. Roberts ordered the militia’s members to surrender their concealed handgun permits to authorities in a decision delivered on May 3.

Self-proclaimed “Christian warrior” Kristopher Sickles had openly shared his desire to initiate a Holy War against the government. He gained national attention in 2008 with a sequence of YouTube videos under the alias of “Pale Horse.” The videos display Sickles dressed in military fatigues, wearing a camouflaged balaclava over his face, cradling a firearm, and using a voice modulator. In one video he calls on Americans to arm themselves against their government. Sickles also produced two short films. The first, "Dement Incarnate," features a serial killer who is depicted reveling in the slaughter of a young child. The second film, "American Jihad," depicts a Michigan-based military group that brutally tortures and beheads a businessman. These videos and films were widely viewed online and “Pale Horse” even appeared on Alex Jones’ radio show.

The Hutaree are not the first members of a terrorist cell to acquire permits to carry concealed handguns in their communities. On September 25, 2009, authorities arrested and charged seven men for plotting an attack against the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, as well as conspiring to provide material support to terrorists abroad. Three of the terrorists charged—Dylan Alexander Boyd, Daniel Patrick Boyd and Anes Subasic—were legally issued concealed handgun permits in the state of North Carolina. Subasic obtained his permit despite numerous outstanding international warrants for his arrest in Serbia. “Homegrown jihadi” Daniel Boyd also had an international criminal record. Boyd moved to Pakistan in 1989 and became involved with the Afghan militant group Hezb-e-Islami. In 1991 an Islamic Court tried Daniel for a suspected bank robbery where he allegedly stole $3,200, fired a handgun at bank officials, and fled. The sentence was eventually overturned on appeal after Boyd served several months of incarceration and hard labor.

Why these men—with their connections to terrorist groups and violent histories—were able to obtain permits to carry concealed handguns in public remains unknown. A simple Google search could have turned up much, or all, of the evidence documented above.

What is clear is that a majority of states in the U.S. make it far too easy for dangerous individuals to obtain concealed handgun permits. 37 states (including North Carolina, Michigan and Ohio) are “Shall-Issue” states that require a resident to undergo an instant computer background check and take a one-day safety and training class (if there is any training requirement at all) to obtain a permit. Law enforcement officials in these states are given no discretion to deny a permit if an applicant satisfies these basic criteria, even if they uncover additional disturbing background information about him/her. Three states (Alaska, Arizona, and Vermont) require no permit whatsoever to carry a concealed handgun.

The featured speaker at this year’s National Rifle Association (NRA) convention, Fox News host Glenn Beck, demonstrated the organization’s (misplaced) fears about terrorism when he stated, “God forbid, there's another Timothy McVeigh, and God forbid, that guy has in his wallet an NRA card.” Beck might have added, “And God forbid he has a permit to carry a concealed weapon,” given the NRA’s overwhelming support for liberal carry laws. Not to mention that the NRA has also vigorously opposed efforts to prohibit individuals on the Terrorist Watch List from buying guns. Washington Post writer Dana Milbank recently noted that if the standard is “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” then “NRA chief Wayne LaPierre should be just a few frequent-flier miles short of a free ticket to Gitmo right about now.”

June 21, 2010

Pure Fantasy

For years, studies have shown that a gun in the home is far more likely to kill or injure a family member or loved one than an intruder. That data, however, has not deterred some Americans from arming up and fantasizing about the chance to take out a “bad guy.” At the 2005 National Rifle Association (NRA) convention, NRA Board Member Ted Nugent famously proclaimed, “I want burglars dead. I want child molesters dead. I want the bad guys dead. No court case. No parole. No early release. I want ‘em dead. Get a gun and when they attack you, shoot ‘em.” While that rhetoric might provide good material for a movie (think “Dirty Harry” or “Death Wish”), the reality of hyper-macho gun ownership is often far different in practice.

On June 15, Tyler Smith and Tyler Baker (both age 26) were hanging out together at a friend’s house in Portland, Oregon. The pair had been drinking earlier that night when Smith decided to demonstrate to Baker how he would use his handgun if a criminal attempted to break into his home. During this demonstration, Smith discharged his loaded .380 caliber handgun into Baker’s chest, killing him. Smith claimed it was an accident and has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. In an affidavit to the police, he admitted to having at least four drinks that evening.

Both Smith and Baker had concealed handgun permits. The one-time, three-hour training course required to obtain a permit in Oregon, however, was not sufficient to prevent the June 15th tragedy (no separate training is required to simply purchase or own a handgun in Oregon). Smith apparently felt he could mix guns and alcohol without adverse consequences.

Studies show that guns kept in the home are 22 times more likely to be used in unintentional shootings, murders, assaults, and suicide attempts than in any act of self-defense. A 12-month study done in Memphis and an 18-month study in Seattle and Galveston found a total of 626 shootings that occurred in or around residences. Only 13 of them were deemed legally justifiable.

For all the fantasies that Ted Nugent and other pro-gun activists have about “taking out bad guys” and being heroes, the reality is that such scenarios are highly unlikely to happen. High-profile, testosterone-fueled grandiosity might even serve to exacerbate the reckless behavior of some gun owners, increasing the inherent risk of keeping a gun in the home. Finally, the menial training requirements that most states have instituted for gun owners and gun-toters offer little hope of crowding out the gun lobby’s “Shoot First” message.

May 3, 2010

Cutthroat Politics

It has been widely reported that President Barack Obama has been receiving an enormous number of threats during his 15 months in office—a 400% increase over the number received by President George W. Bush. Commentators have also decried the death threats received by Members of Congress who voted for health care reform in March.

Less frequently reported, however, is the number of such threats coming from individuals who hold concealed handgun permits. This blog looks at three such cases that are particularly disturbing.

On March 27, Norman Leboon, 38, of Philadelphia was arrested and charged with threatening to kill U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) and his family. Leboon had posted a video on YouTube in which he warned, “Remember Eric...our judgment time, the final Yom Kippur has been given. You are a liar, you're a pig...you're an abomination. You receive my bullets in your office, remember they will be placed in your heads. You and your children are Lucifer's abominations.”

Rep. Cantor was not the only public figure that Leboon had threatened. Leboon had posted thousands of videos on YouTube which were “bizarre [and] sometimes threatening. In one of these videos, he commented, “Yes, President Obama, you and Vice President Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and your security council say very bad things about me. Your punishment is coming, the swine, it will be severe, and you will beg for mercy to your God. It will be severe.”

According to Philadelphia court records, Norman Leboon was arrested by city police on June 14, 2009, after threatening to kill his live-in partner John Hopkins. Neither Leboon nor Hopkins showed up at the ensuing July 28 hearing. Peter Leboon tried to have his brother committed to a mental institution on numerous occasions, most recently before Christmas 2009.

These issues did not prohibit Leboon from obtaining a concealed handgun permit in Pennsylvania, however. Peter Leboon recalls: “The last time I tried to get him help we searched the whole house, six or seven of us, we couldn't find [his] gun. I found the permit, though, and destroyed it.”

In another case, Mark Anthony Rattenni, 37, was questioned by U.S. Secret Service agents on April 7 “in reference to a threat against the president of the United States.” When Secret Service found Rattenni in possession of a 9mm firearm, they called the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. A deputy checked the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) and found that Rattenni had been convicted of felony forgery in 1999 and felony assault in 2003 in New York, which made it illegal for him to own a firearm. He was subsequently arrested.

Despite these convictions, Rattenni had been issued a permit to carry a concealed handgun in July 2007 by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The department had sent Ratteni a letter on December 19, 2007, stating that his permit was to be revoked because of the convictions, but the Pinellas County deputy’s check on April 7 found that the permit was still valid.

The Yonkers District Attorney’s office in New York discovered on April 9 that Rattenni’s felony charges were eventually reduced to misdemeanors. Pinellas Chief Assistance State Attorney Bruce Bartlett has said, however, that Rattenni still shouldn’t have passed a background check to buy a handgun or obtain a concealed handgun permit.

In the most recent event, Joseph Sean McVey, an Ohio resident, was arrested on April 26 at the Asheville Regional Airport just after Air Force One departed with the President and First Lady. McVey, 23, exited his vehicle, which was parked in a rental car return parking lot, with a loaded handgun and told a police officer that he wanted to see the president. Police searched McVey’s car and found a variety of law enforcement equipment, including a siren box, a mounted digital camera, LED strobe lights, and four large antennas. In the car’s cup holder were rifle scope formulas, which help a shooter adjust for distance when firing at a target. McVey was charged with going armed in terror of the public.

McVey was a concealed handgun permit holder and a member of the local Coshocton County Radio Emergency Association Citizen Team in Ohio. The citizen team is a volunteer organization that assists the sheriff’s department with traffic control at emergency scenes, which may explain why McVey had a police scanner and radio. County Police had a run-in with him in January, when McVey stopped on the highway to see if a couple who had pulled to the side of the road needed help. When he did not receive a response, he went back to his car, retrieved and holstered his handgun, and went back to the couple, at which point the man “swore at [him] and came towards [him].” After being instructed by a dispatcher to leave the scene, McVey was pulled over at gunpoint and “lectured on the proper way to handle a gun” by police.

After McVey’s arrest in North Carolina, Coshocton County Sheriff Tim Rogers revoked his permit to carry a concealed handgun.

Leboon, Rattenni and McVey all obtained concealed handgun permits in “Shall-Issue” states that give local law enforcement no discretion in issuing them. Applicants who meet a basic set of criteria must be given a permit and there is limited screening for criminal and mental health history (all of which is conducted through an instant computer check). In light of increased threats to our elected officials, policy makers now have another reason to assess whether such a process adequately assures public safety.

April 5, 2010

A Tale of Two Neighbors

Much of the National Rifle Association’s current agenda in federal and state legislatures is aimed at expanding Americans’ ability to employ lethal force with a firearm in self-defense, which they assert is a “fundamental, God-given right.” This agenda includes weakening the requirements to obtain a concealed handgun permit, expanding the number of places (public and private) where concealed handguns can be carried, and enacting “Shoot First” laws that remove an individual’s duty to retreat from potentially violent confrontations. “When seconds count, the police are minutes away,” is the mantra frequently heard from self-defense proponents in the gun “rights” community.

When you allow and encourage untrained individuals to make unilateral decisions in heated situations involving firearms, however, the rule of law is weakened and there is a heightened potential for accidents and unnecessary violence. Last summer, two would-be vigilantes in Utah learned this lesson the hard way, and the result was a tragedy that has devastated two families and divided a community.

During the summer of 2009, there had been a string of car burglaries and mailbox thefts in the Bluffdale, Utah community of Parry Farms near Salt Lake City. Reginald Campos, 43, and his family had been the victims of several mail thefts. In addition, late at night, someone had broken into his garage, forced open three cars, and stole some of the family’s credit cards. The police were contacted.

Another resident in the community, David Serbeck, 37, had warned neighbors of the thefts and organized a community watch group. On July 21, 2009, Serbeck, a former army sniper, and Troy Peterson, president of the local homeowners’ association, drove through the neighborhood looking for criminal activity after being given photos of suspicious cars by a friend in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department. Serbeck, who holds a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Utah, brought a loaded handgun with him.

At one point in the night, the men almost hit two girls walking in the street and stopped them to ask some questions. The girls continued on to a friend’s house, picked up two others friends, and started driving to one of their houses. When they saw Serbeck’s SUV again, they thought they were being followed. In reality, they were—their car matched one of the photos Serbeck and Peterson had.

One of the girls was the daughter of Reginald Campos. She called her father and he got in his car to find the girls. After locating them, he escorted them back to his house. Then Campos and his daughter went back out to find the SUV Serbeck was driving. Campos brought a loaded handgun with him. Although Campos does not have a permit to carry a concealed handgun, Utah law allows anyone age 18 or over to legally carry a handgun in their car without any formal safety training.

According to Serbeck, Campos sped his own SUV in front of Serbeck’s vehicle and “slammed on [the] brakes, forcing him to stop.” Campos then exited his vehicle with his handgun drawn and ordered Serbeck to put his hands up. Serbeck states he got out of his SUV holding his handgun upside down, by the barrel. He then placed the gun on the ground and kicked it away. Campos then fired two shots at Serbeck, striking him once and damaging his spinal cord. Peterson, who remained in Serbeck’s car, corroborated this account. Detective Paul Nielson of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office reported that, “Serbeck’s firearm was on the ground when officers arrived [at the scene], and…had the safety lock on.”

Serbeck is now paralyzed from the chest down and Campos has been charged with attempted murder. He is claiming self-defense, despite Serbeck and Peterson’s statements. Salt Lake County Deputy District Attorney Alicia Cook sees things Serbeck’s way. “We determined that there was no reason to use deadly force in this situation,” she said. “There is just simply not a justification for that shooting.”

Campos’ attorney, Greg Skordas, blamed a gun culture run amok in Utah. “If you and I jumped out of our cars [unarmed], we shove each other, maybe walk away embarrassed. But they had to make a decision,” he stated.

Levi Hughes, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Deputy, agreed that the presence of firearms turned what should have been at worst a fistfight into a tragedy. “If you have a gun, sometimes people will feel more empowered. Problem is they don’t have the training, knowledge or experience to handle a confrontation that would require a gun,” he said. The Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office stopped sponsoring mobile patrol programs about ten years ago after patrol members were involved in a similar incident involving a car chase and shooting.

The Sheriff’s Office does, however, sponsor neighborhood watches. “We come to [residents’] homes. We talk to them about the things they need to watch out for, things they need to do to protect themselves.” But residents are not encouraged to become vigilantes. Officers tell them, "Don't take firearms with you and don't get involved. You don't stop people and interview them, don't question people you think might be involved in a crime. Leave that to law enforcement.”

To Hughes, the Bluffdale shooting should be a clear warning to other would-be vigilantes: “This is an example of what’s happened before and could happen to you if you take the law into your own hands.”

In one final tragic irony, federal authorities are close to indicting four suspects for the thefts at Parry Farms. Authorities credited the information given to them before the shooting by Reginald Campos with helping them crack the case.

March 29, 2010

Open Carry Nightmare

Starbucks has made national headlines in recent weeks because of its policy allowing individuals to openly carry loaded firearms into the chain’s coffeehouses. In cities and towns across America, patrons quietly drinking a cup of coffee have been alarmed by the sight of customers with handguns holstered on their waists. Starbucks has claimed they are only following local and state law—regrettably, 47 states allow "Open Carry" in public, and only 12 of them require residents to obtain permits. But the truth is Starbucks has every right to set its own rules for conduct and behavior in it stores.

The issue is broader than Starbucks, however. In recent years, gun owners have staged “Open Carry events” in a variety of public places and private establishments with the intent of “normalizing” this behavior. In the words of OpenCarry.org founder John Pierce, “Open Carry forces those you meet, be they friends, relatives or neighbors, to reconcile their preconceived notions and prejudices regarding firearms with the fact that you are exercising this right in a safe and responsible manner.”

It is important to note, however, that not all open carriers are safe, responsible, “law-abiding” citizens simply exercising their “Second Amendment rights.” This blog highlights six individuals who you would not want to see armed in your neighborhood under any circumstances:

1) William Kostric. On August 11, 2009, William Kostric openly carried a loaded handgun at a protest outside a town hall meeting hosted by President Barack Obama at Portsmouth High School in New Hampshire. Kostric, a New Hampshire resident, is a former member of the We The People Arizona Chapter. We The People is a “Patriot” group that espouses “extreme antigovernment doctrines.”

During the protest, Kostric held a sign that read, “It's Time to Water the Tree of Liberty!” The sign referred to the following quote by Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

Statements by Kostric were soon identified that shed further light on his sign’s message. On his MySpace page, Kostric lists Bob Schultz, the anti-tax radical and founder of the We The People Foundation; and Randy Weaver, the anti-government radical and white supremacist; as some of his “heroes.” A comment left by Kostric was also found at the Reason Magazine website. Posted on April 17, 2008, in response to an article about two Georgia men who fired guns at police as they conducted a no-knock drug raid, Kostric wrote, “It looks the cops ran into the first amendment while violating the fourth. That's the way it's supposed to work. If people can't wake up and see why it's immoral to trespass and destroy someones property, kidnap and lock them in a cage for growing a plant in their backyard then perhaps a body count is what's required for change. I personally feel zero sympathy for those cops. I reserve my sympathy for the victims of the nonsense they initiate.”

2) Chris Broughton. On August 16, 2009, about a dozen people were noted by police to be openly carrying firearms at a health care rally across the street from a Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention at the Phoenix Convention Center, where President Barack Obama was giving an address. One of the armed protesters at the rally was Chris Broughton, a 28 year-old resident of Phoenix and Team Member of We The People's Arizona Chapter. Broughton openly carried a loaded AR-15 rifle, slung on his back, as well as a loaded handgun in a holster.

In an interview videotaped that day, Broughton stated that his AR-15 “aids [him] in [his] resistance efforts.” He went on to say, “What do you think we did in the revolution, in the American Revolution? The British weren't stealing money from us for health care. They weren't taxing us the way they are now back then. And what did we do? We forcefully kicked them out of our country, and we will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote.”

Broughton is a congregant of fundamentalist pastor Steven Anderson at the Faithful Word Baptist Church in Arizona. The night before President Obama's speech in Phoenix, Anderson gave a sermon where he said of the president, “I’m not gonna pray for his good. I’m going to pray that he dies and goes to hell.” Broughton, asked about the sermon in an interview outside the church, said, “I concur. I think we'd be better off if God would send him where he's going now instead of later. He is destroying our country.” When a reporter then asked, “You're not advocating violence against the president?” Broughton replied, “I'm not going to answer that question directly.”

3) Leonard Embody. On December 20, 2009, “The Radnor Lake Rambo,” Leonard Embody, was detained for openly carrying a loaded AK-47 pistol into Radnor Lake State Park in Tennessee. He was apparently testing a new state law allowing those with concealed carry permits to bring their handguns into state parks. One park visitor who encountered Embody reported, “He was wearing military boots and a black skull cap. He didn’t look like the friendliest of guys. It was scary.” Park rangers were notified and Embody was questioned, but subsequently released.

On January 20 of this year, Embody was questioned by law enforcement again after he was found openly carrying a pistol on Belle Meade Boulevard. He carried his 1851 Model Navy black powder pistol “in an unsafe manner, in an unsafe location and in an unsafe condition.”

Thomas Sexton, the Criminal Investigator for the Belle Meade Police Department, sent a letter to the Tennessee Department of Safety on February 26, stating, “[Embody’s] actions clearly are for his own benefit and do not represent the actions of a responsible citizen wishing to safely carry a handgun for legitimate purposes.” On March 12, Embody received a letter from the Department of Safety informing him that his concealed carry permit had been revoked. According to Embody, the letter said, “There was a material likelihood that [he] was a risk to the public.”

4) Unidentified Alamogordo Protester. On January 2, 2010, approximately 300 people attended a rally in Alamogordo, New Mexico, organized by the local Otero Tea Party Patriots and Second Amendment Task Force. The purpose of the rally was to protest health care reform and the Obama administration, and many of the rally's participants openly carried handguns and/or rifles. Alamogordo Department of Public Safety officers and the New Mexico State Police drove by “at no less than five-minute intervals during the two-hour event.”

In a videotaped interview with a reporter from the New Mexico Independent, one protester stated that his handgun was a “very open threat” to the “Socialist Communists” in the Obama administration. “The government fears the people, and a disarmed people are slaves,” he said. “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun ... They’re pushing us to our limits.”

Ron Browne of Alamogordo, a bystander at the rally, saw things differently. “I see this as the seeds of terrorism being born,” he said. “You have the guns. Eventually, you'll have the hate, then someone will actually take it one step further and try to hurt the president. Hate has to start somewhere and grow. This is it, right here. You're looking at it. If this keeps expanding, we're going to have a civil war.”

5) Christian George Gonzales. Just after midnight on February 12, 2010, Christian George Gonzales, 29, walked out of a 7-Eleven in San Bruno, California, with a .40 caliber handgun on his belt. He approached two police officers in the parking lot, asking Officer Jack Boland, “Want to check me?” California law requires those who carry guns openly to keep them unloaded (although ammunition magazines can be openly carried as well, allowing for instant loading)—and Gonzales was apparently trying to make some kind of point with the officers.

The gun was indeed unloaded, but the officers promptly arrested Gonzales for being drunk in public. Gonzalez was so inebriated he "stumbled backwards and fell into the [officers’] patrol car." According to Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County’s chief deputy district attorney, Boland has known Gonzales for years because of his “predilection for alcohol.”

6) Mike Vanderboegh. In a March 19, 2010 blog posting entitled, “To all modern Sons of Liberty: THIS is your time. Break their windows. Break them NOW,” Mike Vanderboegh incited all those unhappy with health care reform legislation to action. When incidents of vandalism were reported hours later at Democratic offices throughout the country, Vanderboegh was quick to take credit (several U.S. Representatives who voted for health care reform also received death threats).

Vanderboegh is the former leader of the Alabama Constitutional Militia and the author of the Sipsey Street Irregulars blog. The blog refers to “The Three Percent,” meaning the percentage of American gun owners who “will not disarm, will not compromise and will no longer back up at the passage of the next gun control act.” “We are the people that the collectivists who now control the government should leave alone if they wish to continue unfettered oxygen consumption,” Vanderboegh warns.

In his March 19 posting, Vanderboegh expanded on this idea and aired his frustration with health care reform:

When the law becomes a deadly tool of tyranny, it is no longer a good thing to be obedient and “law-abiding.” It is, in fact, suicidal ... This is the message that modern Sons of Liberty should get across to the Royalists of today. Now. Before we have to resort to rifles to resist their ‘well intentioned’ tyranny ... It is, after all, more humane than shooting them in self defense. And if we do a proper job, if we break the windows of hundreds, thousands, of Democrat party headquarters across this country, we might just wake up enough of them to make defending ourselves at the muzzle of a rifle unnecessary.

Vanderboegh’s violent call to action has made him a darling of the Open Carry movement. He will be a featured speaker at the “Restore the Constitution Open Carry Rally” on April 19 in Fort Hunt National Park, Virginia. According to the organizers, the site was chosen because it is the closest attendees can get to Washington, D.C. and still legally carry guns in public. The date is significant because it recognizes three anniversaries: The Battle of Lexington/Concord in 1775, during which the opening shots in the American revolution were fired; the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in 1993 during federal law enforcement’s siege in Waco, Texas; and the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh.

When these Open Carry activists began to make headlines last year, even some ardent gun rights activists began to express reservations about the practice. Alan Gottlieb, founder of the far-right-wing Second Amendment Foundation, said, “I’m all for open carry laws, but I don’t think flaunting it is very productive for our cause. It just scares people.” Clayton Cramer, gun rights advocate and author of Armed America: The Remarkable Story of How and Why Guns Became as American as Apple Pie, opined, “gun owners should think long and hard about whether it serves our best interests to offend, disturb, or concern people” by openly carrying firearms.

John Pierce of OpenCarry.org claims that if gun owners “made it very clear to…people that they meet every day that gun ownership is a wholesome and responsible activity, we would see many of the negative stereotypes go away.” The problem is that open carriers, in many cases, are not living up to Pierce’s standards. Until they do, such negative stereotypes will remain rooted in reality.

March 15, 2010

Hit and Gun

Concealed carry advocates frequently talk about their imminent need to be armed in public, saying things like, “When seconds count, the police are minutes away.” Unfortunately, what some concealed handgun permit holders consider to be self-defense can rightfully be deemed aggression by others. Additionally, permit holders sometimes display little interest in the assistance of law enforcement even when they are seconds away, as a recent tragedy in Texas reveals.

On March 3, Sonya Randle and her 13-year old daughter Alexis Wiley were driving home from a high school basketball game in Houston, Texas, when Richard Calderon, 24, ran a stop sign and hit their car with his 1998 Cadillac. Before Randle could get out of her Nissan Altima to talk to Calderon, he sped off, leaving the scene of the accident. Randle followed Calderon and was able to get his license plate number. She then passed him to continue her drive home. At that point, Calderon began to chase Randle. After closing the distance between the two vehicles, he drew a 9 mm handgun and fired two rounds into the Altima’s rear windshield. Alexis, who was sitting in the back seat, was hit in the head by one of the bullets. She died from her injuries the next morning at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.

Randle gave police the license plate number and they located Calderon at the address where the Cadillac was registered. Calderon had covered the vehicle with a tarp. He turned over his handgun and indicated he possessed a permit to carry a concealed handgun. Calderon claimed he had acted in “self-defense” when he saw a front-seat passenger in Randle’s car lean out of the window holding “something shiny.”

Sgt. Brian Harris of the Houston Police Department Homicide Division doesn't buy it. He stated, “Pursuing is not acting in self-defense. [Calderon] was able to clearly articulate there was no imminent threat to him—whatever threat he perceived had already passed.” Sgt. Harris continued, “His story doesn't match the ten other witnesses that we have—and that's the problem.”

Calderon was charged with felony murder and made an initial court appearance on the morning of March 5, posting $50,000 bond. While he went free, family and friends of Alexis Wiley mourned her death. One of her classmates at Johnston Middle School said, “Everyone is walking around and they’re crying, even if they didn’t know her.”

Road rage is a common phenomenon in the United States, and this is not the first time Ordinary People has commented on stories about such incidents involving concealed handgun permit holders (including violent encounters in Fairfax, Knoxville, Memphis, Port St. Lucie and Pembroke Pines). According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, “an average of at least 1,500 men, women, and children are injured or killed each year in the United States as a result of ‘aggressive driving.’”

Meanwhile, there were only 204 instances of justifiable homicide with a firearm by American citizens in all of 2008, according to the FBI.

Had Calderon not been carrying a handgun on March 3, Alexis Wiley would probably still be alive. And Calderon, at worst, would be dealing with the consequences of leaving the scene of an accident where no one was injured. Instead he is facing murder charges, and as Sgt. Harris noted, “you have two families’ lives that are destroyed.”

March 8, 2010

The Right Priorities

Two recent stories in California shed light on how the concealed handgun permitting process in the state works—and sometimes doesn’t work.

The first story involves a local sheriff in Orange County who is garnering criticism for placing public safety too high on her priority list. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens replaced Sheriff Mike Carona in 2008 after Carona was indicted on federal corruption charges. Carona had also come under scrutiny for his practice of providing friends and business associates with concealed handgun permits. “The policy under the previous administration was to freely give them out,” Hutchens stated. “It comes down to whether you’re going to follow the law. The prior sheriff did not.”

Carona set up a program where those who donated over $1,000 to his campaign were granted concealed handgun permits and badges through a program called "Professional Service Responders." An investigation revealed that the recipients of these permits gave at least $68,000 to Carona. One of these permit holders, Carona's former martial arts instructor, was sentenced to six months in prison after drawing his gun in a dispute on a golf course. Others had prior criminal convictions before receiving a permit.

California is a “May-Issue” state, meaning that law enforcement officials have discretion in issuing concealed handgun permits. Applicants must provide a “good cause” for wanting a permit and demonstrate “good moral character.” They are interviewed and run though a computerized instant background check, and can be required to submit a medical clearance letter from a physician and/or undergo psychological or polygraph testing. Hutchens’ policy is to issue permits to “persons of good and upstanding character who possess credible, significant, and substantiated cause to fear for their safety. [Permits] will not be issued for political, social or other reasons.”

Since coming into office, Hutchens has revoked 132 permits issued by Carona (individuals targeted for revocation were given the option of having their permits expire early so they would not have a “revoked” denotation on their record). Another 168 individuals permitted by Carona did not seek renewal. Of the applications for new permits and renewals evaluated by Hutchens, 564 out of 642 have been approved (90%).

This is apparently not good enough for the National Rifle Association (NRA), gun rights activists, and certain county supervisors, who have accused Hutchens of launching a “misguided jihad.” One man who had his permit revoked by Hutchens stated, “It’s a telling sign of a public official who brings in a philosophy from Los Angeles that doesn’t belong in Orange County and imposes that philosophy against the will of the people and the board that hired her.” The two men running against Hutchens in the November elections, Bill Hunt and Craig Hunter, have also harped on the issue.

Another recent story from California, however, reinforces Hutchens’ wisdom in taking a close look at applicants for concealed handgun permits.

On February 26, law enforcement officials went to the Minkler community home of Rick Liles with a warrant for arson and firearm violations. When they attempted to arrest Liles, he responded with gunfire from an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle. At least 150 officers from nearly a dozen agencies arrived on the scene to lay siege to the mobile home. After firing 400 rounds of ammunition into the trailer, authorities were finally able to suppress Liles’ fire. Tragically, Fresno County Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Wahlenmaier was shot dead and Reedley Police Department Officer Javier Bejar was critically wounded (another officer sustained minor gunshot wounds). Officer Bejar was taken off life support and died on March 1.

When authorities finally entered Liles’ trailer hours later, they found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His personal arsenal consisted of five handguns and five rifles.

Liles had been issued a permit to carry a concealed handgun by Fresno County in 2003. He renewed the permit on two occasions before it expired in the summer of 2009.

This was despite Liles’ personal history, which indicated a propensity toward violence and mental instability. Neighbors and local residents had accused Liles of setting fires on their property and firing bullets into nearby homes, one of which “caused minor injuries to a neighbor.” Mary Novak, owner of the Minkler Cash Store, had been one of Liles’ targets. “I don’t think it was focused towards me,” she said. “I think he was reaching out for something, maybe help.” Liles’ wife Diane “told police that [he] had been taking several medications, including Prozac.” She also indicated he was becoming increasingly paranoid with violent thoughts. Liles told Diane several times in recent months that he intended to shoot officers and then take his own life rather than go to prison.[Diane has a violent past of her own—she was convicted in 2005 of threatening to kill a co-worker with a gun.]

Incidents like the one in Minkler demonstrate the importance of thoroughly screening concealed handgun applicants to ensure their mental stability and good character. If every sheriff in California embraced comprehensive and thorough screening procedures like Sandra Hutchens, it would be extremely difficult for dangerous individuals to obtain concealed handgun permits. In a state that loses over 3,300 of its residents to gun violence each year, citizens should lend their support to a sheriff who values public safety over the personal convenience of a small group of individuals.

February 1, 2010

"His mental state was in question."

On January 19, Christopher Bryan Speight, 39, shot and killed eight people inside and around the home he shared with family members in Appomattox, Virginia. His victims were Lauralee Sipe, 38, Speight's sister; Dwayne Sipe, 38, his brother-in-law; Morgan Dobyns, 15, Speight's niece; Joshua Sipe, 4, his nephew; Emily A. Quarles, 15, Morgan's friend; Karen Quarles, 43, Emily's mother; Jonathan L. Quarles, 43, Emily's father; and Ronald "Bo" Scruggs II, 16, Emily’s boyfriend.

More than 150 law enforcement officials arrived on the scene in response to the shootings and combed the nearby woods in search of Speight. During the siege, Speight took down a Virginia State Police helicopter by piercing its fuel tank with six rounds from a high-powered rifle (Speight had participated in National Rifle Association rifle competitions, which he excelled in). Eventually, Speight surrendered to authorities. He has been charged with one count of first-degree murder, with more charges likely coming.

A search of Speight’s house uncovered 17 bombs, including seven homemade grenades, two improvised explosive devices “with chemical irritant attached,” two IED “anti-personnel mines,” two pipe bombs and four more IEDs. Authorities also found more than a dozen firearms (including at least three AR-15 assault rifles and two Chinese-made Uzis) and “large amounts” of ammunition. Night-vision equipment, body armor and a pair of homemade mortar tubes were also found inside the home.

A search of Appomattox County court records has revealed that Speight held a concealed handgun permit, which was renewed on two occasions (in 2004 and 2009) despite his “history of mental breakdowns,” which was well known to his family and their attorney. Speight also apparently legally purchased the guns used in the shootings, and bought and sold firearms through unregulated private transfers (i.e., no background checks, no paperwork).

There were six confirmed mass shootings by concealed handgun permit holders in 2009. Speight becomes the first in 2010.

Those who knew Speight say he may have become fixated on the notion that his sister wanted to oust him from the Appomattox County home passed down to them by their grandparents and mother. Speight was removed as a trustee of the property in 2007 “over concern for his stability.” When family members met with him to discuss the matter, he “talked about booby-trapping his bedroom.” Speight also told friends he heard a “zinging” in his ears following the death of his mother in 2006. As the family attorney, Henry Devening, describes it, “his mental state was in question.” Speight was apparently seeing a therapist to address these issues.

Under Virginia law, individuals are disqualified from obtaining concealed handgun permits for reason of mental health under a narrow set of criteria, including the following: a) If they have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution; b) If they have been adjudicated as “mentally incompetent,” and; c) If they have been acquitted by reason of insanity. Virginia makes no provision for people who do not fall under certain specific criteria but who are nonetheless seriously mentally ill.

Additionally, no investigative authority exists to make sure these disqualifications are detected. The Virginia State Police conduct instant computer background checks to verify mental health information through databases that are missing millions of disqualifying records. This process failed to turn up any information about Speight’s mental health issues.

In his most recent application to renew his concealed handgun permit, filed on January 6 of last year, Speight described himself in court papers as a dependable person who showed pride in his ability to "find ways to get out of problems without using force or violence." The tragic irony of that statement is now apparent.

As Alice Mountjoy, the Government Relations Coordinator of the Virginia Center for Public Safety, recently commented, “When an individual with as tortured a mental health history as Christopher Speight is able to get a concealed handgun permit, it confirms what we have been saying for years ... The screening process [for concealed carry applicants in Virginia] is broken and does little to assure that permit holders are both law-abiding and mentally fit to carry handguns around our families in public.”