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August 1, 2011

Michigan's Rubber Stamp

Ten years after Michigan made it easier for residents to obtain concealed handgun permits, an investigation by the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research (CSCAR) has revealed numerous problems regarding the implementation of the law. Of particular concern is the inconsistent manner in which permit applicants and permit holders are screened for public safety.

Michigan’s “Shall-Issue” concealed carry law went into effect on July 1, 2001. It established “gun boards” in each of Michigan’s 83 counties “to issue, deny, revoke, or suspend a license to carry a concealed pistol.” The boards are required to issue a concealed handgun permit to any applicant who is at least 21 years of age, completes an eight-hour safety course (with three hours on the firing range), and meets a basic set of criteria in terms of criminal and mental health background.

Michigan residents are having few problems in meeting these criteria. The CSCAR investigation found that “the number of permit holders [in Michigan] is skyrocketing,” with more than 270,000 Michiganders holding permits today—twice as many as just five years ago.

The problems lie in the oversight of the permitting system. Each year, gun boards are supposed to submit a report to state police detailing permit applications (issued, pending and denied) and detailing any criminal charges against existing permit holders. But since the law was enacted, 43 of Michigan’s 83 counties have yet to file a single report. This has prohibited the Michigan State Police from discharging their duty to provide a complete annual report with these statistics to the state legislature. For example, during one recent year in Genessee County, the following incidents went unreported to the State Police: “a fatal shooting, a federal drug indictment, reckless use of a firearm and 61 other crimes.”

Other serious problems with the permitting system have been identified. Permits are given to applicants before criminal and/or mental health disqualifications expire; permit holders are mistakenly given exemptions to carry handguns in sensitive gun-free zones; and permits that have been properly denied are suddenly approved without any clear reason.

The CSCAR investigation has revealed several alarming cases in which concealed handgun permit holders committed horrific acts of gun violence:

This blatant abuse of the law should have lawmakers worried. But when former state Senator Mike Green (R-Mayville)—the original sponsor of Michigan’s “Shall-Issue” law—was told some of the non-reporting counties are from his area, he responded, “I’m glad you told me that. I know those guys,” and laughed.

Prosecutors in Michigan have taken a different tone. Juris Kaps, a prosecutor in Van Buren County, refused to sit on his gun board, saying, “I have a lot of things to do and I’ve got better things to do than be a rubber stamp.” Kaps expressed concern about “the absence of a true check on [an applicant’s] mental health” and didn’t want to “get into a situation where [his] stamp of approval is on someone who is mentally deranged.”

We are constantly told by the National Rifle Association and its gun lobby partners that concealed handgun permit holders are the most “law-abiding citizens” in America. It’s now abundantly clear that such a guarantee holds little or no weight in Michigan.

May 9, 2011

Portrait of a "Responsible Citizen"

By now, most Americans are familiar with the extreme controversy that surrounds fundamentalist Christian pastor Terry Jones. What few realized until very recently is that Jones has been authorized to carry a loaded gun in 35 states across the country.

Rev. Jones runs the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. He first made national headlines in July 2010 when he announced plans to burn 200 copies of the Quran—the Muslim holy book—on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “We must send a send a clear message to radical Islam,” Jones explained. “We will not be controlled by their fear, we will not be dominated. We feel it is time for America to be America.” He punctuated this message by posting signs along the church’s property that shouted, “ISLAM IS OF THE DEVIL.”

Jones was aware of how offensive the book burning would be. "We are definitely probably insulting all Muslims," he stated. "The fact that we offend them is the lesser of two evils."

It wasn’t long before a massive public outcry erupted that cut across party and ideological lines. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin called Jones’ plans “mean-spirited religious intolerance” and an “unnecessary provocation.” More alarmingly, General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO Commander in Afghanistan, warned that “images of the burning of a Quran would undoubtedly be used by extremists in Afghanistan—and around the world—to inflame public opinion and incite violence.”

Jones, under intense pressure, cancelled his event, but only temporarily. On March 20, 2011, he supervised the burning of a single Quran at his Dove World Outreach Center following an “Islam trial.” In a video, Jones can be heard commenting, “It actually burns very good."

The burning did not go unnoticed in the Middle East. On April 1, approximately 2,000 protesters gathered outside the United Nations office in the northern Afghanistan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Violence erupted when protesters grabbed guns from UN guards and opened fire on them. The compound was stormed and when the smoke cleared 12 people lay dead, including seven UN workers.

Jones was sanguine in response. “We must hold these countries and people accountable for what they have done as well as for any excuses they may use to promote their terrorist activities,” he said. The Pentagon saw it differently, speaking of the “tragic, deadly consequences” of Jones’ actions.

Just three weeks later, on April 21, Jones was endangering lives again, this time in Southfield, Michigan. The fundamentalist pastor was in town to appear on the Detroit FOX channel’s "Let it Rip” show. After his interview, Jones was escorted by police to his vehicle with his assistant pastor, Wayne Sapp (it was Sapp who physically burned the Quran on March 20).

When Jones got in the passenger seat of the car he accidentally fired a .40-caliber handgun into the floor of the vehicle. Officers who examined the car found another handgun belonging to Sapp under the driver’s seat. The two men were detained for a short period of time, during which the Southfield Police learned that both Jones and Sapp hold concealed handgun permits in Florida (because of a reciprocity agreement, Florida permit holders can carry their weapons in Michigan). But then, with little explanation, police returned both handguns to the men and allowed them to go on their way without filing any charges. This was despite the fact that, when asked about the discharge of the gun, Jones replied, “I have actually no explanation, no excuse.”

Jones was then free to proceed with a publicly-announced plan to arm himself and his followers during an upcoming Good Friday demonstration in the heavily Muslim Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan—an event which necessitated the involvement of riot police.

Florida is a “shall-issue” state, meaning the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services must issue a concealed handgun permit to any applicant who passes an instant computerized background check and takes a single, 3-hour training course. The permit is accepted in 34 other states and applicants are not required to be Florida residents in order to apply for one. The Florida permit has become popular with individuals of questionable character who cannot obtain permits in their own homes states. Plenty of unsavory characters in Florida are acquiring permits as well, whether it’s Rev. Jones, outlaw motorcycle gang members or individuals with extensive criminal backgrounds.

In commenting about Florida’s concealed handgun permit holders, longtime National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer remarked, “What other group has a better record of responsible citizenship?”

We can think of a few...

April 4, 2011

Designated Shooters

The January shooting massacre in Tucson reminded America of how easy it is for mentally unstable individuals to legally purchase firearms. With states across the country beginning to liberalize their laws to allow the carrying of firearms in bars at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA), it is pertinent to ask who is hanging around in your neighborhood pub, as a recent incident from Ohio demonstrates.

On March 16 at approximately 2:00 a.m., the Summit County Sheriff’s Office in Akron, Ohio got a strange 911 call. A local gas station employee reported a man who was claiming that he was being chased by an individual with a gun.

When officers arrived at the station, however, they discovered a different situation. The man in question, 25-year-old Joseph Deitch, was present, but no pursuer could be found. According to a report filed by sheriff’s deputies: “Deitch was found to have an empty holster in his waistband and ammunition on his person ... Deitch appeared unstable and it was determined that no other subject with a gun was involved. He indicated that he had given several guns to a friend earlier in the evening. Other guns and a large amount of ammunition were discovered in the parking lot inside Deitch’s vehicle.”

Deputies also discovered that Deitch has a permit to carry a concealed handgun in Ohio.

The Summit County Sheriff’s Office soon received a call from the friend that Deitch had referred to. It turns out the he and Deitch had been at Brubaker’s Pub (about three miles from the gas station) earlier in the evening, and the friend had witnessed Deitch “make threats to shoot patrons of the bar.” Thankfully, Deitch left the bar before acting on these threats. His friend confirmed that he did indeed take possession of several of Deitch’s firearms as they departed the pub and went their separate ways.

Deputies’ next stop was the house where Deitch lives with his mother. At this location, additional firearms were found. All told, “10 handguns, shotguns, and assault rifles” were tagged and taken into evidence. At the conclusion of the investigation, Deitch was arrested on charges of aggravated menacing and booked into the Summit County Jail. More charges could be pending as the investigation continues.

Ohio is a “shall-issue” state where law enforcement has no discretion whatsoever in the issuance of concealed handgun permits. They must issue a permit to any individual who passes a computerized background check and undergoes the required 12 hours of training, including two hours shooting on a shooting range. Only permit holders who fail to renew their permits within six years need to retake this class—otherwise, it’s good for a lifetime.

Unfortunately, the background check for permit holders offers little in the way of mental health screening. Applicants who have been adjudicated by a court as a mental incompetent or involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution are disqualified from obtaining permits in Ohio. If Deitch fell under either of these two narrow categories (most individuals with mental health issues do not), his records were not found in any database.

On a positive note, under current Ohio law it is illegal for anyone to possess a firearm on the premises of a location that has a liquor license (it is unclear at this point if Deitch and his friend actually brought their guns inside Brubaker’s Pub). But that could change soon.

HB 45, which would allow Ohio’s concealed handgun permit holders to bring loaded guns into bars, was passed by a state House committee on March 16, the same day that Joseph Deitch threatened the lives of patrons in Brubaker’s Pub. Those carrying firearms into bars would be restricted from drinking alcohol, although the legislation does not specify any enforcement mechanism for this provision. Theoretically, a bartender would have to ascertain whether a customer has a gun every time he/she serves a drink. HB 45 would also allow concealed handgun permit holders to transport loaded handguns in their vehicles without having them secured in a holster, case, bag, or box.

Guns in bars legislation has not won any accolades with Ohio law enforcement. Cleveland Police Department Detective Stephen Loomis stated, “I have spent a career dealing with problems in bars, nightclubs, entertainment-district restaurants and men's clubs, and I can tell you without doubt or hesitation the introduction of firearms...will result in the senseless loss of human life … We're going to go from bar fights with bottles and fists to someone who pulls a gun and starts shooting the place up."

Mark Drum of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio added that he is concerned that the idea of a “designated driver would be replaced with a designated shooter.”

The Ohio House is likely to vote on HB 45 this week. The Ohio Coalition Against Gun Violence has issued an Action Alert encouraging Ohio residents to contact their state representatives to tell them to vote ‘No.’ For those who aren’t eager to share a drink (or meal) with the likes of Joseph Deitch and similar “law-abiding citizens,” your call can’t come too soon.

February 21, 2011

“How do you shoot someone eight times in self-defense?”

On February 10, National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. and declared, “Throughout history, one simple truth rings as loud and clear as a bell—the presence of a gun in the hand of a good person makes us all safer.” But a recent tragedy from Florida suggest that perhaps an earlier LaPierre quote—“The guys with the guns make the rules”—more accurately reflects the reality of contemporary America, in a “might makes right” kind of way.

On November 24, 2010, Thomas Baker, a 28-year-old resident of Town ‘n’ Country, Florida, decided to go for a jog. It wasn’t your typical run, however. Baker headed out at approximately 1:00 AM with $950 in cash and a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun.

18-year-old Carlos Mustelier and his 16-year-old friend saw Baker as they headed to a Beverage King in the neighborhood. Mustelier told his friend he was going to rob Baker. After leaving the store, which was closed, they saw Baker passing them again. “I'm going to bam him. I'm gonna knock him out,” Mustelier announced.

The two teens, clad in dark-hooded sweatshirts, confronted Baker. Mustelier closed in and punched Baker in the face, cutting his lip. "You wanna play games? You wanna play games?" Baker said to Mustelier. He immediately pulled out his handgun, centered his laser sight on Mustelier’s chest, and fired eight hollow-point bullets at point-blank range at the unarmed teen. Four bullets hit Mustelier: one in the chest, one in the buttocks, and two in the back. He was dead by the time paramedics arrived (Mustelier’s friend John Martinez rushed to the scene but was unable to revive him). Mustelier’s 16-year-old friend ran for his life, returning later when police arrived. Authorities searched both teens and found no weapons of any kind. Both had clean criminal records.

Detectives interviewed Baker and asked him, "When you go running at night in the neighborhood, do you normally arm yourself with a firearm?" "I always have it on me, unless I'm going to the courthouse,” Baker replied. As for the $950, Baker told detectives he was unemployed and made money fixing friends’ cars. He had just done some work for a friend and that’s why he had that amount of money in his pocket, he claimed. Finally, Baker said he shot Mustelier in self-defense because he thought the teen had a gun on him.

The story worked. Florida prosecutors determined that no charges will be filed against Baker.

The reason for that is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” (aka “Shoot First”) law, which was drafted by the NRA and enacted in 2005. The law eliminates the common law duty to use every reasonable means available to retreat prior to using deadly force, which the Florida Supreme Court had legitimized by explaining, “Human life is precious, and deadly combat should be avoided if at all possible when imminent danger to oneself can be avoided.” The “Stand Your Ground” law states that any individual who is in a place where he/she has a legal right to be, and who is “not engaged in an unlawful activity...has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” Individuals using lethal force in this manner are immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.

The law has been invoked in at least 93 cases in Florida involving 65 deaths, a recent St. Petersburg Times review found. "Whether it's trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn't want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used,” says Miami Police Chief John Timoney. The numbers bear that out—“Justifiable homicides” in Florida have increased from 43 the year the law was enacted to 105 in 2009.

The NRA couldn’t be happier with the results, calling its law “common-sense.” To the NRA, Thomas Baker was another “Armed Citizen” to be celebrated, and that is exactly what the lobby did, proudly announcing on the NRA News Twitter feed: “Florida: Jogger won't be charged in fatal Town 'N Country shooting.”

The family and friends who loved Carlos Mustelier feel differently. Vasilisa Akishina, a classmate and friend of Mustelier, laid flowers at the intersection where he was killed and reminisced about how, "he always made everybody smile." “He was just so generous with everything,” she recalled. Some speculated that there might have been an ulterior motive in the shooting, and referred to an earlier altercation Mustelier had with Baker's younger brother. But perhaps Dianela Gonzaez, Mustelier’s sister, summed up the absurdity of the incident best: "I know that he thought my brother had a gun. But I mean, it was eight shots fired. How do you shoot someone eight times in self-defense? That makes no sense."

No one should paint Carlos Mustelier as a hero in this incident—he was wrong to confront and attack Baker that night. On the flip side, Baker is no hero either. It’s hard to pinpoint the definition of “Looking for Trouble,” but leaving one’s house after midnight with $950 in cash and a loaded handgun must be close. And to fire repeatedly on an unarmed teenager—including three times in the back after he had turned to flee—is murder plain and simple, no matter what the NRA-drafted law in Florida now calls it.

What should have been a fistfight became a tragedy. A young man with his entire life ahead of him has been taken from his loved ones prematurely and unnecessarily. To the NRA, this is “good law” and “good order.” To those of us with a conscience who believe in the notion of a civilized society, it is anathema, and we must stand against it.

January 31, 2011

Colorado's Criminal Betrayer

In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, the National Rifle Association (NRA) continues to claim that those who carry concealed handguns in our communities are among most responsible and law-abiding Americans to be found. A recent story from Colorado, however, illustrates the disturbing actions of a high-profile permit holder who has shown little respect for his peers, his community, the philosophy of nonviolence, and the law.

Brett Reese, a Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education member and owner of KELS Radio, has been in the media spotlight—both in Colorado and nationally—since the beginning of 2011. The attention he has been receiving, however, has not made for a positive start to his New Year.

On his radio program, “Pirate Radio,” Reese ran a segment at least twice per day from early January until Martin Luther King Jr. Day, January 17. In the segment, Reese read comments on air about Dr. King from an “anonymous letter” he received three years ago. Reese called King a “plastic god,” a “sexual degenerate,” and an “America hating communist” and said that he was “a criminal betrayer of even the interest of his own people.” Internet browsers soon found the “anonymous letter” that Reese was reading from on the website martinlutherking.org, which is hosted by the white supremacist/neo-Nazi Internet forum Stormfront. When Reese was confronted about the fact that martinlutherking.org was designed by a white supremacist who pled guilty to a count of possessing child pornography in 2008, he stated, “I’m trying to explain the truth. Facts are facts, and truth is truth, whether it came from a white supremacist website or a Black Panther website.”

Meanwhile, Reese’s behavior took an even more bizarre turn on January 12. At a Greeley-Evans School District 6 board meeting, Reese told his fellow board members that he needed to carry his .45 caliber Kimber handgun on him at all times to protect himself because of “serious” threats he received over his continued radio broadcasts attacking the moral character and legacy of Dr. King. When asked if he would comply with a policy that prevents board members from carrying loaded handguns to the board’s meetings, Reese replied, “No, I won’t. I will protect myself.” The other board members were unanimous in their view that there were alternate steps that could be taken to ensure Reese’s well-being. The board then voted to hold future meetings at local schools. Colorado law specifically prohibits the carrying of firearms in elementary, middle, and high school buildings.

Reese’s odd behavior during the meeting was captured by the Greeley Tribute: “Reese was fidgety and nervous throughout the meeting, constantly checking the door. Before the meeting started, he questioned whether people were watching the entrances to the school. John Gates, director of safety and security for the district, told Reese that the only door open was the front door and anyone coming into the meeting room could only come through a door Gates was watching.”

But Reese wasn’t done yet. On January 21, Justin Sasso, a rival radio station owner, was granted a permanent restraining order against Reese. The order was issued in response to threatening voicemails that Reese left Sasso, in which he complained about sales representatives from Sasso’s KFKA contacting advertisers on KELS. Reese threatened a “shootout” to resolve the matter.

Sasso was asked if he would have taken the threat seriously if Reese wasn’t surrounded in controversy. “I couldn’t say if I would or would not have,” Sasso said. “ But we just came off the [shooting in Arizona of a United States Congresswoman], so to threaten a shootout not once, but twice, and never retract it or define it ... It immediately instilled fear in me.”

Under state law, anyone with an active restraining order is prohibited from carrying a concealed weapon in Colorado. Reese’s concealed handgun permit was initially suspended and then permanently revoked on January 21. The judge who revoked the permit, Charles S. Unfug, decided, “Shootout is a loaded word ... When someone says there will be a shootout, it is an implied threat of violence. There is going to be ongoing competition between the two men. I believe [Reese] would continue to commit acts unless restrained.”

Weld Sheriff's Deputy Bureau Chief Steve Reams has informed Reese that he can still continue to carry his loaded handgun in public, but only if he carries it openly. Reese has now changed his tune, however, saying that he will not carry his gun at all without a permit.

If the NRA and other gun rights advocates would have us believe that concealed handgun permit holders are well-vetted and among the most responsible gun owners in America, how do they explain the moral turpitude of Brett Reese?