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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.”