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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.