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Concealed-Carry Crazy: What Gun Lobbyists Mean When They Tout ‘Gun Safety’

Anyone who has paid even casual attention to pronouncements from the leadership of the National Rifle Association knows that they do not place a particularly high premium on facts or the truth. And while the news media get a passing grade for challenging the NRA on some of its most preposterous claims – the Obama administration is in cahoots with the U.N. to confiscate everyone’s guns — the gun lobby has largely gotten a free ride on gun safety.

Setting aside the fact that the NRA’s general legislative agenda is antithetical to the idea of public safety, consider CEO Wayne LaPierre’s claim that “no other organization in the world has spent more millions over more decades to keep Americans safe.” To many Americans, the NRA’s “family friendly” image rests on the safety and education efforts that are an integral part of its promotion of a culture of guns. These include everything from the “Eddie Eagle” coloring books it disseminates to school children, telling them to call an adult if they find a gun, to multiple courses on the safe use of firearms. The NRA calls itself “the world’s leader in firearm training,” and it may well be.

Yet it has never advocated any serious requirement that gun owners acquire even a modicum of proficiency in the actual handling or use of a firearm before being allowed to purchase one — because that would be “gun control.”

Every state in the union requires that a driver demonstrate some ability to keep a car on the road before receiving a driver’s license. But there is nothing in either federal or state law that requires an individual to have any knowledge of how to use a firearm before acquiring a single gun or a small arsenal. And it’s highly doubtful that the NRA’s eight-hour “Basic Pistol Shooting Course” or its “First Steps Pistol Orientation” class does much to prepare someone for a real-world armed confrontation.

The NRA’s position on gun safety really boils down to this pearl from LaPierre: “The presence of a firearm makes us all safer. It’s just that simple.”

Of course it’s never that simple. Ask the parents of the eight-year-old girl killed last week in Jefferson County, Tennessee, by her 11-year-old neighbor who used his dad’s 12-gauge shotgun to shoot the girl after she refused to let him see her puppy. Or ask the boy’s father if that shotgun made anyone safer.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, it is now the right of every American to keep a gun in the home for self-defense, even if that weapon is more likely to be used in an accidental shooting, a suicide, or a domestic dispute. Encouraging untrained citizens to keep a firearm at home for their personal safety is one thing; but a major thrust of NRA lobbying for the past two decades has been to enact concealed-carry laws that send those same untrained, armed citizens into the public square — to schools, college campuses, national parks, restaurants, the workplace, and on public transport, including Amtrak trains. And that’s where any claim by the NRA to champion public safety really falls apart.

The NRA may talk about “responsible” gun ownership, yet it gleefully helps to arm people who have demonstrated neither the skill to use a weapon in a high-stress situation (or any other circumstance), nor any knowledge of the laws pertaining to the use of weapons. Nor does the NRA seem to care about the mental stability of those who carry concealed weapons. As far as the NRA is concerned, anyone is qualified to carry a concealed until proven otherwise. In 2011, LaPierre told the NRA’s national convention: “Every American wife and mother and daughter, every law-abiding adult woman should be trained, armed, and encouraged to carry a firearm for personal protection.”

Today, every state in the union has enacted a concealed-carry law. Most, sadly, follow the NRA model, including few if any training requirements or provisions that restrict permits to those citizens with a demonstrated need.

So in Virginia and Iowa, blind people can obtain concealed-carry permits. In Virginia and several other states, residents may qualify for a concealed-carry permit by completing an online “course” that is virtually impossible to fail. I qualified for a Utah concealed-carry permit – which would allow me to carry a concealed weapon in fully 35 states because of state “reciprocity” laws — by listening to a six-hour lecture at a Maryland rifle range where I was required neither to pass a written exam nor to fire a single bullet. The overwhelming majority of states also have no requirement that concealed-carry permit holders demonstrate any facility in the use of a firearm. In 18 states where live-fire training is mandatory, standards for passing are extremely weak, based on target shooting scores, which have little correlation to using a gun in a high-stress combat situation.

A Department of Justice study of local law enforcement training back in 2006 found that police departments required a median 60 hours of firearms instruction. Better than 90 percent also required some training in simulated stressful conditions and in night or reduced light conditions. But you won’t find any requirement of that sort in state laws for concealed-carry permits. Unlike police who are frequently required to undergo some sort of re-qualification program, few if any states require concealed-carry licensees to demonstrate any sort of competence to use guns over time. Some states automatically grant concealed-carry permits without any classroom or live fire training to anyone who has served in the military. Although concealed-carry licensees were never intended to replace police or to undergo the same training as police, a little training couldn’t hurt.

Thirty years ago, hardly anyone anywhere in the U.S. could legally carry a concealed weapon. By the early 1990s, promoting concealed-carry had become one of the NRA’s top legislative priorities. By the beginning of 2012, the Government Accountability Office estimated that 8 million citizens had obtained concealed-carry permits. Two years later, the decidedly pro-gun Crime Prevention Research Center estimated that at least 11 million Americans could legally pack heat when they walked the streets.

The NRA thinks this is a sign of great progress because all of these secretly armed, wannabe Rambos will come to the rescue of fellow citizens in distress and make the bad guys more wary of committing crimes. But do most Americans really feel safer with 11 million largely untrained would-be “law enforcers” on the streets?

Even with the best training, studies show that police have a very hard time hitting their intended targets. New York City’s Police Department has some of the best-trained officers in the country. But when 12 Brooklyn cops opened fire on a fleeing gunman last month, only one of 84 shots fired hit the suspect. In 2013, police in Times Square opened fire on a man after he reached into his pocket for what the cops thought might be a gun. Three shots were fired. One round hit a 54-year-old woman in the knee. Another grazed a 35-year-old woman’s buttocks. None hit the suspect.

A RAND Corporation evaluation of NYPD firearm training between 1998 and 2006 found that the average hit rate in gun fights was about 18 percent. Where there was no return fire, the hit rate went up to 30 percent.

Given this not-so-great record for the best-trained police, what should the public expect from wholly untrained civilians?

Earlier this week, a 47-year-old woman with a concealed-carry permit reportedly fired three shots at an SUV leaving a Home Depot parking lot in Michigan after witnessing one of the store’s security guards chasing two shoplifters who jumped into the vehicle.

Thanks to the NRA, we can all look forward to more illegal shootings like that one, by self-appointed citizen “police” who are unlikely to hit anything — except an innocent bystander.

Alan Berlow has written frequently about gun issues. He is the author of Dead Season: A Story of Murder and Revenge.

Photo: NRA Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre speaks during the leadership forum at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting Friday, May 3, 2013 in Houston. (AP Photo/Steve Ueckert)

Beyond Assault Weapons: How Washington Can Begin To Stop The Killing

President Obama is right to insist that Congress move quickly on new gun control legislation, and to reject the idea of appointing yet another commission to ruminate.   In our attention-deficit-afflicted society, the president knows he must move on gun control while Americans are still anguished about last Friday’s slaughter in Newtown, CT. He must also know that the odds against his winning anything of real substance are enormous.

Directing the vice president to head up an interagency effort to prevent future mass shootings, Obama reiterated his support for a new assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines.  But the White House will make a terrible mistake if it follows the course proposed by leading proponents of the assault weapons ban and fails to address the fact that there are already millions of these guns in private hands.  The assault weapons ban signed into law by President Clinton was riddled with loopholes and had little, if any, impact on the overall number of gun homicides.  Since it expired in 2004, millions of these firearms have entered the marketplace.

One solution to this problem would be to bring assault weapons — semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity clips — under the National Firearms Act.  The 1934 NFA, the nation’s first major gun law, was designed to deal with what were then considered the country’s most lethal firearms, machine guns or fully automatic weapons.  A response to gangland shootings — such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre — and an attempt to assassinate President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the law established strict limits on the sale and ownership of fully automatic weapons.

Today, it is still possible to buy a machine gun, but only if you’re willing to register the gun’s serial number with the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), undergo an FBI background check, be fingerprinted and photographed, and get the approval of a local law enforcement official.  That last provision is an added check, allowing a local police chief or sheriff to deny a permit to your drunken wife- and dog-beating next-door neighbor.

In effect, this 78-year-old law says to would-be owners of the most dangerous weapons, “You have a right to own a gun, but you don’t get to decide when, where, and how it can be used.  Being a responsible gun owner means understanding that there are limits.”  Those same standards should be applied to existing owners of semi-automatic assault rifles, which are no less lethal than the machine guns covered by the NFA, particularly given the deadly power of modern ammunition.

There is, as the president has noted, no single solution to the problem of gun violence.  What’s needed is a series of common-sense laws that will make life more difficult for criminals with no impact whatsoever on the Constitutional freedoms of law-abiding citizens.

In addition to placing existing assault weapons under the NFA, here are eight necessary reforms your representatives and senators should demand.  Not surprisingly, the NRA opposes all of them:

1.  Require background checks for all gun sales.  The president has already indicated that he favors such a requirement.  But the devil’s in the details: the key word here is “all.”  The president wants checks for sales at gun shows, a major source of guns used in crimes.  But “all” should also include any secondary sale.  Under current law, only the initial purchaser of a firearm needs a Brady check.  When the first buyer sells to a second person who sells to a third and so on, there is no Brady check.

2.  Allow cross-referencing of Brady checks.  Federal law allows an individual to purchase one handgun a week  — or as many as you want, if you’re willing to be written up in a “multiple purchase” report. (More on that loophole below.)  But if I’m a straw buyer — someone with a clean record who purchases firearms for a felon — I can buy 20 handguns from 20 separate dealers on a single day, and the FBI has no way of detecting that pattern.  Why?  Because the FBI isn’t allowed to cross-check Brady background checks.  Similarly, if the straw buyer purchases one handgun a week for 20 weeks for his trafficker friend, the FBI can’t detect that pattern either — because its own records will have been destroyed under something known as the 24-hour rule.

3.  Eliminate the 24-hour rule.  Under current law, written by the NRA, the FBI must destroy Brady background checks within 24 hours.  So, when gun dealers sell guns to straw buyers, or mistakenly sell guns to felons and other “prohibited” buyers — fugitives from justice, domestic abusers, and so on — the FBI has a mere 24 hours to figure that out.  In effect, the FBI is forced to destroy evidence of a crime.  That’s bad enough.  But the felon also gets a stay-out-of-jail pass.

4.  Create a single, permanent database of gun sales.  The NRA hates databases because it believes the United States is on the brink of becoming a Soviet-style police state.  NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has in fact predicted that President Obama will “excise” the Second Amendment from the Constitution before the end of his second term.  But most Americans are about as worried about the U.S. becoming a dictatorship as they are about the world ending this week based on a misreading of the Mayan calendar.  Most of us also think the government should have the power to track down criminal gun users.  Today, that’s much more difficult than it ought to be, because the NRA convinced Congress that records of gun sales are best retained by the nation’s 60,000 licensed gun sellers at 60,000 separate locations.  If you’re truly interested in catching criminals — and criminal gun dealers — this makes no sense.

5.  Make gun trafficking a felony.  There is currently no federal law against gun trafficking.

6.   Mandate reporting of lost and stolen firearms within 24 to 48 hours.  The NRA has been fighting these laws all over the country because they directly affect gun dealers who make millions of dollars selling guns to criminals, which they later report as “lost.”  Fully 78 percent of NRA members said they supported this requirement, according to a 2009 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz.  Car dealers know when a car is missing from the lot, and they report it to the police; gun dealers should also be accountable for their inventories.

7.  Mandate reporting of all multiple gun purchases.  Current law requires dealers to file a report with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms every time a buyer purchases more than one handgun during a five-day period.  President Obama used his regulatory powers to mandate similar reporting for long guns of greater than .22 caliber in four Southwest border states, an effort designed to impede the flow of high-powered assault rifles to Mexican drug cartels.  These “multiple purchase reports” are one of the most useful tools investigators have for identifying gun traffickers. The NRA has tried — so far unsuccessfully —  to stop the long-gun reporting requirement in federal courts.  Obama should extend the reporting requirement to the other 46 states.

8.  Appoint and confirm a new BATF director.  The BATF, the federal agency tasked with enforcing federal gun laws, has been without a director since the George W. Bush administration because of NRA objections.  Obama needs to appoint someone who will stand up to the NRA and demand new authority to go after dealers who sell to criminals.

Clearly, much more needs to be done than renewing the assault-weapons ban.  “No single law, no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world,” the president said in Newtown.  True enough – but he needs to think big and present a detailed, comprehensive package that makes clear just how weak existing gun laws really are, and how they contribute to the daily mayhem we as a society have come to tolerate.

Photo credit: AP/Charles Dharapak

See No Racism, Hear No Racism: Despite Evidence, Perry About To Execute Another Texas Man

Update: The Supreme Court has temporarily halted Duane Buck’s execution.

Whether Duane Edward Buck will live or die by lethal injection on Thursday is now up to one man: Texas Governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry. The case for commuting Buck’s death sentence to life in prison should have been a slam dunk, given the egregious racial bias in the case. But the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles — a panel hand-picked by Perry — denied Buck’s clemency request on Tuesday, making it far easier for Perry to do what he’s already done 234 times: allow the execution to proceed.

Without an affirmative recommendation for clemency from the board, Perry’s only legal recourse is to grant Buck a 30-day reprieve, which Buck’s lawyers could use to try and bring another claim in state court. Perry could also use his considerable political powers to explain why Buck’s case demands more serious review to ensure that justice is done. But that would be totally out of character.

Except in cases where he was compelled to do so by Supreme Court rulings or other special circumstances, Perry has commuted only one death sentence to life without parole since he took office in December 2000. Appeals for clemency that involved cases of prosecutorial misconduct and inadequate counsel have all been shunned by Perry. The governor has demonstrated no reservations about allowing execution of juveniles or those with severe mental impairments. In one case that continues to haunt Perry’s presidential campaign, he denied clemency to Cameron Todd Willingham — sentenced to death for murdering his three daughters — despite what was probably the most credible claim of innocence by any death row inmate in the United States in the last 35 years.

Duane Buck, a 48-year-old African American, is scheduled to be executed at Texas’s busy Polunsky Unit deathhouse in Livingston later this week for killing his ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend in Houston in 1995. Buck admits that he shot both of them and that he shot Phyllis Taylor, who survived a bullet wound to her chest. What’s at issue is testimony by a psychologist who took the stand at Buck’s 1997 trial and stated that Buck was more likely to be a violent threat in the future because he’s black. The state used that testimony of “future dangerousness” to convince the jury that Buck should die.

In a highly unusual intervention in 2000 then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn called for the retrial of Buck and five other death row inmates, citing evidence of racism in all six trials. “[I]t is inappropriate to allow race to be considered as a factor in our criminal justice system,” said Cornyn, now a Texas senator. “The people of Texas want and deserve a system that affords the same fairness to everyone.” The five other defendants all received new trials because Cornyn stood firm against appeals to race.

Phyllis Taylor, the surviving shooting victim, joined Buck’s lawyers in appealing for clemency. Even the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Buck in 1997 now says the trial was a miscarriage of justice. “It is regrettable that any race-based considerations were placed before Mr. Buck’s jury,” Linda Geffin wrote in a letter to Perry and his parole board last week.

Buck’s lawyer, Kate Black of the Texas Defender Service, said the parole board’s decision “fails to recognize what the highest legal officer in the State of Texas had acknowledged,” that Buck’s trial was “tainted by considerations of race.” Black called on Perry to stay the execution and allow Buck to pursue his case for a new sentencing hearing at which a jury would be asked to hand down an appropriate sentence for the two murders without being influenced by appeals to race. That jury would still have the option of sentencing Buck to death.

Had the parole board considered seriously its responsibility to try to mitigate miscarriages of justice, the outcome in the Buck matter would have certainly been different. But the board is a creature of the governor and its members knew that recommending a commutation to life in prison — or the 120-day reprieve Buck’s lawyer’s sought as an alternative — would have only complicated Perry’s political life. For Perry to deny clemency after his own board acknowledged that Buck was sentenced to death because of his race would have been hugely controversial and would have focused even more attention on Perry’s sorry clemency record. If, on the other hand, Perry agreed to a recommendation to commute the sentence, he no doubt would have angered his hardcore conservative base. Recall that only a week ago, during a debate among Republican presidential candidates at the Reagan Library in California, the audience erupted in wild applause at the mere mention of Perry’s execution record.

The parole board’s decision to say no to Buck will allow Perry to do what he normally does — issue a statement claiming that Buck had the benefit of a thorough review by the courts, the clemency board and the governor, and then send him to his death.

At last week’s Republican debate, Perry said that Texas has a “very thoughtful, clear process” for reviewing death cases. Sadly, the case of Duane Buck and many, many more suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.