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Giffords, Guns and Glocks

On Wednesday, June 15th United States Representative Gabrielle Giffords was released from a Houston rehabilitation hospital five months after she had been shot in the head while hosting a local town hall gathering in Tucson called “Congress on Your Corner”.  Representative Giffords has now returned to her home, an uncertain future and questionable return to Congress, at least in the near future.  With that said, her Democratic colleagues in Congress are still raising money for her campaign.  She spent her 41st birthday in a rehabilitation hospital learning to walk and talk for the second time in her life.  We owe Representative Giffords a brief reflection on the events and related issues that have led up to her current situation as we wish her well in her continued recovery.

On that Saturday morning in January Ms. Giffords was conducting an outdoor meeting for constituents at a local shopping center when Jared Lee Loughner sprayed 31 bullets in 15 seconds using a Glock with a high-capacity magazine killing 6 people, including 9 year old Christina-Taylor Green and a federal court judge.  Another thirteen people were injured in the shooting.   This massacre ended only when Loughner stopped to reload and bystanders wrestled him to the ground. If he had used a standard magazine and was forced to reload earlier, some of his victims might have been spared.    

High capacity magazines like the one used by Loughner dramatically boost a weapon’s firing power.  They were prohibited from 1994 until 2004 by the federal assault weapons ban. That law placed a prohibition on the sale of 19 different types of military style semi-automatic assault weapons and high capacity magazines until 2004 when Congress failed to renew the law.   In Virginia, a recent investigation has revealed that during the last year of the ban in 2004, just 10 percent of the crime-related guns seized by Virginia police were equipped with high-capacity magazines, a 10-year low.   

Although Loughner’s community college required a mental-health examination for readmission, gaps in the national background check system allowed him to get his hands on that Glock.  The National Instant Criminal Background Check System for gun purchases includes criminal and mental health information, but only for those committed to an institution or found mentally deficient in court.  

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence has compiled a list of over 160 shootings that have occurred since Harold Glover shot and killed Cecil Herndon while 250  four year-old children watched in Tulsa, Oklahoma on January 31, 1997. Glover used a .357 Magnum to open fire at the Bunche Early Childhood Development Center.   

 The Brady list also includes the shooting in Littleton, Colorado on April 4th, 1999 when two students, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed 15 students and a teacher and wounded 23 with two sawed-off shotguns and a TEC-DC9 before killing themselves at Columbine High School.   Another incident on the list occurred at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.  The perpetrator, Seung-Hui Cho, then 23 years old, opened fire with two guns, armed with nineteen 10- and 15-round magazines and almost 400 rounds of ammunition before taking his own life.

At gun shows across the country, buyers can completely avoid background checks otherwise required by law.  The Columbine High School shooters obtained their weapons at a gun show.  Gun traffickers also patronize the shows, buying weapons that ultimately surface at crime scenes across the country.  A background check is not conducted every time a gun is sold. This makes it possible for people like Loughner to get their hands on lethal firepower.

Recently it has been reported that 247 people suspected of ties to terrorism bought guns in the U.S. last year legally.   Those people who were allowed to buy weapons did so after going through required background checks. Incredibly, it’s not illegal for people listed on the government’s terror watch list to buy weapons.   A video released recently by a member of Al Qaeda, shows that weak U.S. gun laws create significant risks to homeland security and thus opportunities for terrorism.   Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey is attempting to amend the law to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

The Gun Control Act of 1968  (GCA) was enacted on October 22, 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson. It’s a federal law regulating the firearms industry and firearms owners and administered by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.  It focuses on regulating interstate commerce in firearms by prohibiting interstate firearms transfers except among licensed manufacturers, dealers and importers.  Thanks to GCA, foreign made assault rifles and machine guns such as the AK-47, the FN FAL or the Heckler & Koch MP5  can no longer be imported into the United States for civilian ownership.  However, semi-automatic models of the same weapons are still permitted.

Since 1968 various organizations have expressed opposition to the GCA’s provisions. Organizations such as the National Rifle Association have been noted to oppose only some of the act’s restrictions, while supporting others such as those forbidding the selling of firearms to convicted criminals and the mentally ill. Still other organizations oppose the act altogether, arguing that it is excessively restrictive on law-abiding gun owners, while failing to prevent crime.

Despite the objections, the GCA doesn’t go far enough as demonstrated by Brady’s list of 160 shootings.

Since the lapse of the 1994 ban, high-capacity magazines have become commonplace in gun and sporting goods stores despite having any remote sporting or civilian value.  By last year, with the ban expired, the percentage had surged 22 percent.    Several legislative proposals have been introduced since 2004 to reinstate a ban on assault weapons and paraphernalia but have not gained sufficient votes.  The Tucson shooting was less than a year after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer made her state one of three in the nation to allow citizens over the age of 21 to carry concealed weapons without a permit

Other attempts have been made to close the gaps in gun regulations.  Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York has proposed a ban on the weapons themselves but also understands the political realities.  She sponsored the Assault Weapons Ban and Law Enforcement Protection Act of 2007.   It was a bill that would have ultimately reenacted the ban on assault weapons by the Clinton Administration in 1994 but the bill failed in committee.

Shortly after the shooting massacre in Tucson earlier this year, President Obama called on all stakeholders in this issue to come together to figure out ways to avoid future tragedies like the one in Tucson. In March, he invited National Rifle Association officials to participate in closed-door meetings to develop a plan.  NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre rejected that offer saying, “It shouldn’t be a dialogue about guns; it really should be a dialogue about dangerous people”.   The dialogue should focus on how to prevent gun violence.   Gun violence involves people and guns.     

The NRA has announced that, “There are well over 250 million privately-owned firearms in the U.S., including nearly 100 million handguns and tens of millions of “assault weapons In 2008, there were more than 337,000 new AR-15s configured for home defense, competition, training, recreational target practice and hunting.”

According to the Brady Center, almost 100,000 people in America are shot in murders, assaults, suicides, accidents, or by police intervention annually.   Three thousand sixty two are children.  A simple international comparison can provide perspective on America’s culture of gun violence. Together, Japan, Germany, England, Wales and Canada are home to 305 million people.  Guns kill about 450 people in those countries in an average year. By contrast, the United States, home to over 300 million people, witnesses an average of 9,500 gun murders in one year.  About 5,900 American troops have died in Afghanistan and Iraq during the past 10 years.

The word absolutism has been used to describe the NRA’s position on legislation and even discussions that approach the idea of reform of gun laws to limit the circulation of assault weapons, related paraphernalia or accessibility to them.   Their claim has been consistent, saying that any compromise will only lead to further concessions that they’re unwilling to make.

In the aftermath of this latest shooting, the NRA has made it clear that they have no interest in finding a solution to legally sanctioned gun safety despite their claim of promoting gun safety. The American people need to call on them to work with Congress in helping us to do just that, rather than maintain its stubborn (and deadly) absolutism.    As long as the 2nd Amendment exists and funders continue to bankroll their leaders, they will remain on the scene.  So far, their negligence has been morally indictable.

In a reaffirmation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution , on June 26, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held that American citizens have an individual right to own guns in District of Columbia v. Heller . In that case the Court stated that an absolute firearm ban was unconstitutional.  The Court further determined that its decision in Heller does not impinge upon all existing statutes and regulations, such as those that prohibit felons and the mentally ill from owning or possessing firearms.

Certainly, existing laws and their current implementation need to be examined and improved to guard the public against the possibility of dangerous individuals from purchasing guns and any lethal weapons.  This can be done without  threatening the integrity of the 2nd Amendment . Jared Loughner and all the other individuals who have used guns to kill and wound innocent people would not have been able to do so without access to those guns.   In the very least, we need to tighten regulations governing gun shows and reinstate the high capacity ban.   

The local response to the Tucson shooting should include Arizona-based efforts to strengthen gun-control laws. It doesn’t violate the Second Amendment to keep semiautomatic weapons away from the mentally ill.   Reasonable measures can be taken that certainly will not impede law abiding gun owners’ rights.  For example, closing the gun show loophole would not prohibit anyone new from buying a firearm—it would simply make sure sellers at gun shows follow the same rules as gun sellers everywhere else. 

In a particularly abhorent twist of irony, Republican Tea Party candidate Jesse Kelly is running for Congress in Giffords’ 8th Congressional district promoting lethal firepower.  His motto is Send a Warrior to Congress.  The online banner ad shows him in combat fatigues brandishing an assault rifle. 

On the morning of January 8th Representative Giffords was exemplifying peaceful democracy in action – meeting with her neighbors and constituents outside of a grocery store in a “Congress on Your Corner” gathering. This is what participatory democracy as defined by the Constitution is all about.  The First Amendment, ironically, is what Giffords read on the opening day of Congress.  It has had a profound effect on her life. We wish her a full and speedy recovery.

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Thomas P. Davis

Thomas P. Davis

I'm a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I've been writing about public issues for 10 years.