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“Too Complacent About American Bloodbaths”: Reasonable Laws Could Solve Shooting Rampages

Last week’s horror at the Washington Navy Yard barely interrupted the stale political chatter, the dueling poll-tested messages, the sensational reports on the latest celebrity divorce or stint in rehab. While the newest mass shooting did preoccupy reporters for a couple of days, its import — at least judged in headlines and cable hours — quickly faded.

It was just another day of horrifying gun violence in America. The public has grown inured to the death toll, complacent about the destruction. If 20 dead babies at Sandy Hook didn’t move us to act, well, what will? When will the United States recover from this insanity — this sense that we cannot or should not rein in guns?

The “rampage” shooting has become a feature of contemporary culture, a peculiarly American perversion. It occurs in a few other countries, but not with the frequency with which it strikes here. This sort of crime — this kind of atrocity — generally stars an angry and deranged man determined to take out his wrath on strangers before going out in a blaze of glory. And there has been a troubling uptick in bloodbaths like this over the last decade.

The gun lobby would no doubt point out that, overall, gun violence has declined over the last several years. That’s true. As crime of all kinds has decreased, so have murders and assaults with firearms. But the “rampage” mass shooting has become more deadly even as more routine gun violence, the sort associated with monetary gain or personal revenge, has decreased.

Earlier this year, the Congressional Research Service issued a report, “Public Mass Shootings in the United States,” that catalogued 78 mass shootings between 1983 and 2012. They accounted for 547 deaths and an additional 476 injuries. The Washington Post has pointed out that half of the deadliest of those — Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Binghamton, Fort Hood and the Navy Yard — have occurred since 2007.

Experts have begun to focus, appropriately, on missed signals about the mental state of accused shooter Aaron Alexis, who told Rhode Island police officers that he was hearing voices. Certainly, the United States needs to do much better in providing mental health care to every citizen who needs it.

But it would be much more practical to focus on reining in guns. As any therapist would tell you, it’s very difficult to predict which patients may turn to violence. Alexis reportedly saw doctors at the Veterans Administration, but he told them he didn’t present a danger to anyone.

Sensible firearms measures would fill in the gap that our mental health system can’t straddle. Such limits would curb the bloodshed without infringing on the rights of any citizen who wants to hunt wild game or defend his home. Shouldn’t it be at least as difficult to get a firearm as it is for me to get a prescription for a sinus infection?

Take the simple matter of a waiting period. Alexis apparently purchased his pump-action shotgun two days before the massacre. With a few more days, various law enforcement and military entities may have pieced together his arrests for firearms violations and a report of his auditory hallucinations, which was apparently forwarded to naval authorities.

Other sensible measures — including a ban on high-capacity magazines — might not have deterred Alexis, but they would have curbed the violence from other shootings. And they would not infringe on the rights of the average gun owner. The Second Amendment does not espouse unlimited freedom to own the most dangerous firearms on the market.

Is the mass shooter the biggest crime problem remaining in America? By no means. But gun deaths are still a huge public health concern.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. will see more deaths from firearms than from car accidents by 2015.

Since the 1960s, we’ve made a series of law and policy changes that have reduced the carnage on our highways. We’ve done the opposite with firearms as various states have approved laws allowing guns in bars, parks and even churches.

That’s a recipe for more bloody rampages.


By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, September 21, 2013

September 22, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Another Kid With An AR-15”: Yet, Washington Has Given Up On Gun Control And Doing Absolutely Nothing

The scene described by eyewitnesses and authorities is one out of a video game: Suspected shooter John Zawahri turned the beachfront Southern California community of Santa Monica into a battle zone for 15 minutes Friday afternoon, cutting a bloody swath through a mile of the city as he shoot at cars and passersby with abandon after killing two family members and burning down their house. NBC News:

As firefighters first arrived at the scene to extinguish the blaze, the gunman carjacked a vehicle being driven by an adult woman and threatened to murder her if she didn’t drive him to the nearby college campus, Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said Saturday.

The gunman demanded the woman stop at various points along the mile-long ride so he could fire indiscriminately at passing cars, police said. He shot at a woman driving past the scene of the carjacking, wounding her, and later sprayed bullets at a public bus, shattering glass and injuring three people.

As they approached the SMC campus, the shooter fired at Carlos Navarro Franco while he sat behind the wheel of his SUV, which spun out of control and careened into a wall…[he] died instantly.

And yet, the scene is all too quotidian and real. It follows a familiar script: A young man — Zawahri’s 24th birthday would have been on Saturday — who suffered from emotional and psychological problems — he was previously hospitalized for mental illness — wielding an AR-15 rifle — the same gun used at Sandy Hook and Aurora and Oregon and countless other shootings — to kill innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case, five dead, including the gunman, and at least four others injured.

The parallels with alleged Newtown shooter Adam Lanza go even deeper. Zawahri’s parents were divorced and he lived with his mother, whom neighbors desired as a “lovely woman…with a crazy kid.” “John had a fascination with guns,” a friend told the Los Angeles Times. “We were all worried about it.” And, like Lanza, he shot his parent before launching his rampage.

Maybe it’s because the shooting was overshadowed by blockbuster revelations about government spying, or maybe we’ve finally exhausted our ability to care about these tragedies after so many, but the shooting hasn’t earned anywhere near the attention of other mass sprees. Or maybe it’s just too difficult to dwell on — and no political leaders have an interest in drawing attention to it — since Washington has all but abandoned any attempt to reform gun safety laws.

And this case should show just how badly those laws need reform. Zawahri should have been stopped at least twice over from accumulating his stockpile, thanks to both his mental health problems and California laws that generally prohibit the purchase of assault weapons. Critics will undoubtably say the fact that he wasn’t stopped shows the opposite — strict gun laws don’t stop shootings — but both prohibitions are fraught with glaring loopholes, as this incident and too many others have shown. Guns can be lightly modified to flout legal definitions of assault weapons, or purchased online, or bought through private sales in other states to skirt all regulations. They can even be assembled from parts kits purchased online with zero government oversight, as Bryan Schatz did just a few miles from Santa Monica for a Mother Jones story.

But more importantly, background checks are supposed to stop people with mental illness from purchasing weapons, but problems with coordination between states and the FBI have meant that this often doesn’t happen. And it’s too easy to avoid a background check all together. These are exactly the kinds of loopholes that reforms want to close.

Others will say that armed bystanders could have stopped the shooting, but this argument fails basic tests of logic, history, and science. Armed civillians rarely, if ever, stop gunmen, and occasionally injure other victims in the melee by accident. And if guns laws are worthless because some people won’t follow them, as the NRA and its comrades like to say, then by that logic all laws, from speed limits to prohibitions on rape, should be thrown out because people keep finding ways to break those too.

Maybe guns don’t kill people, as the bumper sticker says, but tell me that Zawahri would have killed as many people with a knife instead of a semi-automatic assault rifle. And if it can happen in restorty Santa Monica, a community best known for being the backdrop for hundreds of movies and the subject of several hit songs (and, disclosure: this hometown of this writer), or white collar Newtown, Connecticut, it can happen anywhere.

We’ll probably never be able to stop all gun crimes, but throwing up our hands and doing nothing to at least try isn’t the answer.


By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, June 10, 2013

June 13, 2013 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Violence | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Couldn’t Care Less”: The Gun Lobby’s Fanaticism Prevails Over Common Sense

You might have thought that the mangled bodies of 20 dead children would have been enough to overcome the crazed obsessions of the gun lobby.

You might have believed that the courage and exhortations of a former congresswoman — her career cut short and her life forever changed by a would-be assassin’s bullet — would have pushed Congress to do the right thing.

You might have reasoned that polls showing overwhelming public support for a sensible gun control measure would have persuaded politicians to take a modest step toward preventing more massacres.

You would have been wrong. Last week, the U.S. Senate sent a stark message to the citizens it is elected to represent: We couldn’t care less about what you want.

Fifteen years of highly publicized mass murders carried out by madmen with firearms — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson and Aurora, to name just a few — have changed nothing. Newtown, where 26 people, including 20 young children, were mowed down by a man armed with an assault-type weapon and high-capacity magazines for his ammo, provoked little more than a ripple in the corridors of Washington, where the National Rifle Association and its like-minded lobbies carried the day.

The grip that the gun lobby maintains on Congress is hard to explain. The National Rifle Association has persuaded spineless politicians that it is an omnipotent election god, able to strike down those who don’t cower before it. That’s simply not true, but even if it were, aren’t some principles worth losing elections over?

The proposal that appeared to have the best chance of passage last week was modest enough. It would simply have expanded criminal background checks to include guns sold at gun shows and via the Internet, a step supported by 90 percent of Americans, according to polls.

As its proponents conceded, it would not have stopped the Newtown atrocity. Adam Lanza took his mother’s legally purchased weapons to kill her, to carry out a massacre and to then commit suicide.

But expanded background checks would certainly save other lives, since violent husbands and other criminals have been able to saunter through huge holes in the system to purchase guns. Speaking with justifiable anger after the background-check measure went down to defeat, President Obama noted, “… if action by Congress could have saved one person, one child, a few hundred, a few thousand … we had an obligation to try.”

In an exhaustive report last week about online purchases of firearms, The New York Times showed clearly why expanded background checks are needed. As the newspaper noted, websites for firearms function as “unregulated bazaars” where sellers offer prospective buyers the following assurance: “no questions asked.” Reporters found persons with criminal records buying and selling guns.

It is infuriating that the gun lobby defeated a proposal to rein in that dangerous commerce. And, as usual, it defended its opposition with a lie: The amendment would have led to a national registry of guns, just a slippery slope away from confiscation.

While many discussions of the gun lobby’s fanaticism include a nod to the country’s frontier origins, it’s a mistake to believe this craziness is rooted in history. The lunacy from Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, has a more recent provenance.

When I was a child in Alabama — the daughter and niece of hunting enthusiasts — gun owners didn’t demand the right to take their weapons into church or bars or onto college campuses.

But as hunting has become less popular and as the number of households owning guns has declined, the ranks of gun owners have become over-represented by conspiracy theorists and assorted crazies and kooks. They can be easily persuaded that the government is on a mission to confiscate their firearms.

There is little doubt that paranoia is amplified by the presence of a black president, who represents the deepest fears of right-wing survivalist types. So it was probably naive to expect that he could drum up support for more reasonable gun safety measures.

But if 20 dead children can’t persuade Congress to tighten gun laws, what will?


By: Cynthia Tucker, The National Memo, April 20, 2013

April 21, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Mass Murder Lobby”: How The NRA Impeded The Boston Bomber Investigation

The intense hunt for the Boston Marathon bombers illustrates another way that the National Rifle Association helps mass murderers — by delaying how quickly they can be identified.

The inability to quickly track the gunpowders in the Boston bombs is due to government policy designed and promoted by the NRA, which has found a way to transform every massacre associated with weapons into an opportunity for the munitions companies that sustain it to sell more guns, gunpowder and bullets.

The price for such delays was put on terrible display Friday morning when the two brothers, who had been caught on video placing the bombs, killed one police officer, wounded another and carjacked a motorist, creating conditions so unsafe that the 7th largest population center in America spent Friday on lockdown.

But for the NRA-backed policy of not putting identifiers known as taggants in gunpowder, law enforcement could have quickly identified the explosives used to make the bombs, tracking them from manufacture to retail sale. That could well have saved the life of Sean Collier, the 26-year-old MIT police officer who was gunned down Thursday night by the fleeing bomb suspects.

Had the suspects in the Boston bombings killed by slipping poison into bottled water or canned food at a factory, or lacing spinach in a field with a deadly chemical, it would have taken only minutes to a few hours to identify exactly where that food was manufactured and how it moved through the food chain. That would have quickly narrowed the search for suspects.

With many food products you can use a smartphone app to scan the product’s barcode and learn where, when and by what company the product was made. Cans and bottles also come with codes printed or stamped on them to help stop foodborne illness by tracking products to their source.

“With almost any food these days you can quickly track it from the source to the store where it was sold,” according to Bill Marler, a Seattle litigator who specializes in food safety cases and sponsors the website Food Safety News.

Had the Boston bombers used a plastic explosive, it would have included identifiers that would have allowed a quick trace. Those taggants exist because the NRA does not oppose them.

Why is that? Why this breach in the NRA’s Maginot Line of defense against reasonable regulation of guns and ammunition?

The answer appears to lie in who makes plastic explosives like Semtx, which was used to bring down Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. The world’s main supplier was not a company that finances the NRA, but Libya under Moammar Khadafy.

That this one breach in NRA policy traces directly to the economic interests of the American munitions industry provides powerful evidence of what motivates the NRA – profits.

That the gun makers have managed to turn each massacre into a spike in sales of both expensive rapid-fire weapons and ammunition adds to the evidence that the NRA should be viewed as the mass-murder lobby.

The major source of plastic explosives may also be significant in understanding the NRA’s willingness to go along with taggants for plastic explosives, which are much more powerful than gunpowder.

But gunpowder, like guns, are extremely difficult to trace because for more than three decades the NRA has fought to make sure it’s difficult to almost impossible to do.

That difficulty results not from the technical issues at hand, though the NRA tries to make people think that’s the case by mischaracterizing a 1980 government report.

In the case of guns, the NRA claims anything remotely resembling a gun registry or a national database tracking guns from manufacturer to retail sale would help the government disarm the citizenry. In this the NRA fuels the fantasy that in the event the American government turned on the people, bands of armed patriots could defeat the military with its trained soldiers, aircraft, drones, advanced weaponry and communications.

Iraqi households almost all had guns, too, but that did not protect them from their country’s military or the invading American-led ground forces a decade ago.

Bombs have long been used in America for personal, criminal and political purposes. The frequency of bombings may surprise many people given the intense focus on the Boston bombs.

Roughly 5,000 bombings and attempted bombings are reported in the U.S. each year, according to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reports.

The ATF data, like that the FBI gathers, takes a broad measure, counting bombs made from matchsticks as well as dynamite.

The level of reported bombings in 2011 and 2012 was triple the number compared to more than four decades ago, when I wrote a three-part series in the afternoon San Jose News on homemade explosive devices. Back then, as a staff writer for the morning San Jose Mercury, I covered California radicals, left and right, and the cops trying to catch them. I even got one bomb-maker in 1972 to invite me home to see a nonworking bomb model fashioned from advice in a book we both owned, anti-war protester William Powell’s The Anarchist Cook Book.

Hobbling law enforcement, and attacking it, has long been an NRA strategy.

After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, federal agents had a tough time tracing the fertilizer used to make the bomb that killed 168 people and injured 680 more because the NRA had fought using identifiers for explosives.

As my then-colleague Fox Butterfield reported in The New York Times three weeks after the crime:

Technological advances in the last three decades might have made it harder to build such a bomb and easier to trace its origin, the experts say, but gun enthusiasts and makers of fertilizer and explosives have repeatedly blocked efforts to put the research to use.

“It is just amazing that in this dangerous time, fanatical, boneheaded people are opposed to controls on explosives,” said then-Representative Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat from Brooklyn, who introduced bills in 1993 and 1994 that would have forced manufacturers to add an identifying marker to explosives so their users could be tracked.

Mr. Schumer was referring primarily to the National Rifle Association and the explosives industry, which helped defeat the bills, citing among their objections safety hazards and reliability. The use of markers, they said, makes explosives more unstable and, when used in gunpowder, makes the charge less reliable.

Reynold Hoover, a former bomb expert with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said his agency had money in the budget in the 1970s to develop a tagging or identification agent, known as a taggant. The 3M Corporation devised the technology by the late ’70s, said Mr. Hoover, now a consultant in Washington: fluorescent particles that could be detected by ultraviolet light. Manufacturers would use a different taggant in each batch.

Although up to 90 percent of taggants might be destroyed in a detonation, enough would remain to reveal their source.

In 1979, while conducting a $5 million pilot project using taggants in some seven million pounds of explosives, the ATF was able to track down and convict James L. McFillin, who had used an explosive, Tovex 220, to make a bomb that killed one man and injured another in Baltimore.

But shortly afterward, Congress ordered the bureau to stop work on ways to trace explosives. At the time, Representative William J. Hughes, the New Jersey Democrat who headed the House subcommittee on crime, said the National Rifle Association and makers of explosives had pressured Congress to block the program.

The NRA opposed using taggants, saying they would contaminate some explosives used by gun hobbyists, like old-fashioned gunpowder called black powder and the newer smokeless powder. It said people who liked to fire antique rifles or who loaded their own ammunition would have to use less accurate gunpowder.

Let’s not forget what Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s CEO, said shortly after that terrorist act in Oklahoma City. LaPierre went on the attack against law enforcement, comparing federal agents to the Nazis and calling them “jack-booted thugs.”

Former president George H.W. Bush then resigned from the NRA in protest, but LaPierre kept his job, which speaks volumes.

As for taggants, the “study” the NRA cites to show that good science found taggants would make gunpowder less reliable and would not work was in fact only a review of the literature.

Anyone who actually reads the 1980 report, “Taggants in Explosives,” will find this revealing line by the Office of Technology Assessment: “Due to severe time constraints, OTA did little original research.”

Technology has advanced since that report, which is so old that it was prepared on a typewriter.

We can get identifiers put in gunpowders because of technological advances, just as reports get prepared these days on computers. And if “good science” says existing taggants fall short, then Congress can fund research to develop taggants that work without degrading the quality of the explosive charge in bullets.

But as the votes in the Senate killing modest gun regulation and controls on gun trafficking showed this week, what stands firmly in the way of reducing mass murders and bombings is one organization and its backers.

We can change that, once the public understands that the NRA is not so much a defender of Second Amendment rights as a lobby for enabling mass murder.

By: David Cay Johnson, The National Memo, April 20, 2013

April 21, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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