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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.