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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.