By Enrique Lopetegui
Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Are you tired of lame laws that make it difficult for people to get guns?
Are you a felon, or a “dangerously mentally ill” person who needs a gun to … never mind, no questions asked. It’s your constitutional right!
Do you agree that people, not guns, are the problem?
Yes? Well, stop worrying. Just stop by the closest gun show in your area and get the gun of your choice. No ID? No problem. No sanity? No problem. No money? Problem.
Throughout America, the easiest way to get a gun is at gun shows, but don’t go to the regular tables; that’s for wimps. Just look around and find the nearest unlicensed private dealer, and he’ll take care of you.
Unless, of course, the “gun haters” get their way.
On December 14, the FBI, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and more than a hundred gun control advocates and law enforcement agencies met at San Antonio Hyatt Regency Riverwalk to find ways the states can get more records into the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which was mandated by the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993 and launched by the FBI in 1998.
Before the passage of the Brady Bill (named after Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, who became a gun-control advocate after becoming permanently disabled in the aftermath of the attack on the president in 1981), Congress had passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. The act listed nine categories of prohibited purchasers, which included felons and “anyone who has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to a mental institution.”
“That system just said that those people aren’t supposed to buy guns, but those people lie a lot,” Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign, told the QueBlog by phone. “They’d ask them, ‘Are you mentally ill?’ They’d say ‘No,’ and that was that.”
In 1993, Congress passed the Brady Bill, which required that federally licensed dealers do a background check before they can sell someone a gun. Since then –– and to the dismay of die-hard gun advocates –– figures released by he Brady campaign indicate that the bill stopped 1.8 million (presumably "dangerous") people from buying guns.
However, there are two big loopholes in the Brady background-check system. The main one (which was covered by the SA conference) is that nothing stops a “dangerously mentally ill” person or a plain-ol’ criminal from buying a gun if the state didn’t send their information to the NICS system. That’s exactly what happened in the case of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech killer, in 2007. Despite the fact that a Virginia court declared him to be “a danger to himself” and ordered him to undergo psychiatric treatment, gaps in the state-federal communication allowed him to legally buy the two weapons and ammunition he used in his attack. The federal government subsequently passed a law to strengthen the process by which states send information to NICS, but the system is full of cracks.
The other loophole is that only federally licensed sellers are required to do these checks. The people who sell without a license are not obliged to do background checks, and the main place they do this at is at gun shows. Hence, the “gun-show loophole.”
“The catch is that gun shows basically allow for somebody else to have the venue and do the advertising, and bring in the crowd,” explains Helmke, “and that’s why so many people go around the law and sell guns [at gun shows] without having to do Brady background checks."
Colin Goddard, a survivor of the Virginia Tech massacre, illustrated this in an undercover video he produced after visiting gun shows throughout the nation, including one at the San Antonio Events Center August 29-30.
“I was turned away twice by individual private sellers because I didn't have ID,” Goddard told the QueBlog in an email sent from France. “But in the vast majority of cases [nationwide], no ID was no problem at all.”
Gun-rights advocates (like rocker Ted Nugent, a board member of the National Rifle Association), claim that it is precisely gun regulation, and not the easy availability of guns, that make tragedies like Virginia Tech or Columbine possible. Not only is gun possession protected by the Second Amendment, they argue, but had the students been armed, they would have taken care of Cho in a second. But Helmke doesn’t buy that argument.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all,” he said. “The Second Amendment doesn’t say that bad guys can go and buy guns legally. And the law-abiding citizen will pass the background check. The only group that this causes problems for is dangerous people. [The Brady Bill is] just a common-sense tactic to make it harder for the bad guys to get a gun.”
“The Second Amendment is the only amendment with the word ‘well-regulated’ in it,” he said.
In 2009, the Police Executive Research Forum reported that 40 percent of police departments nationwide registered an increase in the use of assault weapons, and figures recently released by the non-profit National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund state that, in 2009, there has been a 24-percent increase in officers killed in the line of duty in comparison with 2008. As of December 12, 47 police officers were killed, up from 38 in the same period in 2008. However, the 2008 figure was the lowest since 1956, a fact that gun advocates stress whenever someone tries to add new gun regulations. Doesn’t this prove that existing regulations work? Why add more?
“We have about 30,000 total gun deaths and another 70,000 non-fatal gun injuries in America every year,” said Doug Pennington, assistant director of communications for the Brady campaign, via email. “America's gun homicide rate is over 30 times higher than England and Wales. According to the UK's Home Office, England and Wales have about 60 gun homicides per year, with another 3,200 non-fatal gun injuries (in their 2007-2008 fiscal year reporting period).We aren't more violent than the English (or the rest of the industrialized world, for that matter). Rather, our violence is more lethal due to the widespread use of firearms.
“With 100,000 deaths and injuries from gunfire every year in this country, I shudder to think how much worse that figure would be without the Brady Law. On the other hand, think how many more lives we could save if we applied Brady criminal background checks to all gun sales in America, including all gun-show sales.”
According to a Brady campaign study, Texas and three other states tie for 27th when it comes to gun safety, with California being number one (safest) and Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Kentucky tying for the dubious honor of the worst states when it comes to gun safety. But no state should feel too proud.
“Other than a handful of states, everybody’s state laws are pretty weak,” Helmke said. “And Texas is one of the states that the Mexican cartel go to to get guns.”
That was confirmed by the second in command at ATF’s Houston field office, as reported by GlobalPost.com in April 2009.
“We know that Texas is a leading source state for firearms going into Mexico,” Robert Elder told reporter Todd Bensman.
In fact, Texas is the leading source, at least according to 2007 ATF figures cited in the story. In that year, 1,131 guns found in Mexican shooting scenes or confiscated from cartel gangsters were traced to Texan licensed gun dealers, mainly in the Valley area.
In order to curb the easy availability of guns in the U.S., earlier this year U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and U.S. Representatives Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Mike Castle (R-DE) introduced legislations to close the gun-show loophole, and while gun-control advocates expect the usual fierce battle from the NRA, they also expect the support of, of all people, NRA members.
“The NRA leaders oppose any bill that comes along,” says Helmke. “[But] many members, legitimate gun owners, they don’t mind these restrictions. We want election officials and Congress, as well as NRA members, to realize that the NRA leadership doesn’t always speak for their membership.”
Judged by the results of a poll directed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz on behalf of the bi-partisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns, this is not just liberal talk on the part of the Brady Campaign. According to the poll, released in December, “82 percent of NRA members and 86 percent of non-NRA gun owners support prohibiting suspected terrorists from purchasing guns,” while “69% of NRA members and 85% of non-NRA gun owners support background checks for all gun sales at gun shows.”
Félix Sotelo, owner of Dale Wise Custom Guns on Blanco Road, belongs to the 15% non-NRA membership that agrees with NRA’s leadership.
Félix Sotelo, owner of San Antonio's Dale Wise Custom Guns. (Photo by E.L.)
“No, I haven’t heard of the ‘Brady Campaign for the Prevention of…’ whatever,” he told the QueBlog. “But this is a pretty common thing. There’s a lot of anti-gun entities and movements, there’s a constant battle.”
His shop has a sign that reads “a stupid question is better than a stupid mistake,” a leather whip and a deer head trophy hanging on the wall, and a door with a “Yo soy el Army” sticker below a photo of a Native American.
He doesn’t buy into the “we’re not against guns” mantra of gun-control advocates, and fears that, if additional control legislation is passed, people will eventually be altogether prohibited from owning guns.
“There’s a lot of control already in place,” Sotelo said. “There’s a real fine line between people’s rights as individuals and total control of government, and right now we’re right on the fringe of too much control.”
Then he says something that could have been taken straight out of the Brady campaign manual.
“Individuals have a lot of rights that they’re entitled to, as long as they’re law-abiding individuals.”
Precisely, I say. That’s why we should do background checks, so that only law-abiding persons get guns.
“ That law is already in place,” he says. “That’s already a standing law and people are already prosecuted.”
Yes, but many gun dealers don’t follow by the law.
“People don’t always follow the speed limits,” Sotelo says. “Does that mean we need to have a camera on every single corner?”
He then asks me to turn off the tape recorder, but allows me to take notes.
“Let’s just have a chat,” he says. “I want to convert you.”
After a conversation that went nowhere, he's reminds me that he has work to do.
“The more laws you put [in place], the faster you become a criminal," he says. "And you guys don’t get it.”
He reluctantly agrees to let me take a photo of him underneath the deer head. When I ask him if he wants to hold a gun, he turns dead serious.
“Now you’re pushing it.”
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