04.05.09

Accomplices to Murder

Can public shock over the latest round of mass killings overcome the hypocrisy and cowardice of our lawmakers—the ones who let the killers get their guns?

the ones who let the killers get their guns?

Whose finger on the trigger?

Richard Poplawski in a bullet-proof vest guns down three policemen in Pittsburgh. Jiverly Wong shoots 14 to death in Binghamton, New York. Robert Stewart kills eight at a nursing home in North Carolina. Devan Kalathat, five in Santa Clara, California. Cop-killer Lovelle Mixon, four in Oakland. Michael McLendon, ten across two rural counties in Alabama.

All these gun killings—43 in total—occurred over the last 26 days. All harvest profuse expressions of sympathy and prayers for the families and the communities. The detestation for the killers is universal. How could it not be? These are crazed and evil people. They merit our detestation.

In the balance between the right to bear arms and the right to survive, the National Rifle Association has a problem for every solution, an ingenious explanation for every bit of evidence that gun laws save lives.

But they are not alone in their guilt. The people who put guns into the hands have a share of that ignominy. Who are they?

The guilty are the gun dealers at flea markets and state shows who will sell any number of weapons to anyone—juveniles, criminals, nuts—without any background check or records.

The guilty are those lawmakers and officials in states and cities who obstruct reasonable gun control laws. Take Virginia as a classic case. The mentally disturbed Seung-Hui Cho was the trigger man in the massacre at Virginia Tech; he gunned down 32 and wounded 17. But last fall, the legislators of the Commonwealth of Virginia voted against—repeat, against—making it impossible for the mentally disturbed to get a gun. Virginia still allows unregulated gun-show sales, still remains among the laxest states in the nation, and is still a principal source of the lethal pipeline of guns to New York and other cities for criminals. The Mexican drug cartels get their guns through us: After a shootout among factions of the Tijuana cartel, 60 seized guns were traced to purchases in Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Philadelphia and Denver.

The guilty are the congressmen and senators who are scared of the National Rifle Association, arguably the most powerful lobby in the United States. They shed public tears when cops are killed in the line of duty, but ignore the appeals by more than 100 city mayors and organizations of police and troopers to stop the murderous trade.

The guilty are the congressmen who even now are planning to stop a renewal of the federal ban on assault weapons and ammunition magazines capable of semi-automatic fire (one trigger pull per shot but with magazines enabling the user to fire hundreds of rounds in a minute).

The ten-year ban on assault weapons was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 but was allowed to lapse in the Bush presidency, despite a 2004 U.S. Department of Justice study finding that the share of gun crimes involving semi-automatic weapons dropped by 17%, to 72%. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have pledged to reinstate the ban, but on March 16, some 65 House Democrats sent him warning: “We would actively oppose any effort to reinstate the 1994 ban or to pass any similar laws.” ( Click here for their names and states)*

The guilty are the 75 NRA directors, long led by its hard-line executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre. In 2008, it gave $1,165,062 to political action committees ($236,580 to Democrats, $928,482 to Republicans), but a bigger influence are the millions of dollars it will be prepared to spend in campaigns to unseat reformers. The ostensible cause, the preservation of the Second Amendment, is not threatened by reasonable laws to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and madmen. Instead, the NRA demands completely unregulated gun sales, always ignoring that the Founding Fathers prefaced that right by referring to a “well-regulated” militia.

In the balance between the right to bear arms and the right to survive, the NRA has a problem for every solution, an ingenious explanation for every bit of evidence that gun laws save lives. Its theme: “Guns don’t kill people. It’s bad people who kill people.” But it is easy access to guns that, shockingly, gives America far and away the highest murder rate among civilized nations.

The guilty are ordinary members of the NRA, decent law-abiding folks who allow themselves to be misled by their association’s relentless propaganda into believing every gun-control measure is aimed at denying their right to keep a weapon for self-defense or hunting. They’ve bought the NRA lie, for instance, that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives persecutes honest gun dealers. On the contrary, a review of federal cases over five years shows the agency has focused on the lawbreakers who lack records for the sale of hundreds of thousands of firearms.

And the guilty are all of us who let the guilty get away with…murder.

*In order of signing the letter to the attorney general, the Democratic Congressmen who object to banning assault weapons are:
Mike Ross (AR), Tim Holden (PA), Jerry Costello (IL), Jim Matheson (UT), Sanford Bishop (GA), John Dingell (MI), Marion Berry (AR), Nick Rahall (WV), Gene Green (TX), Chet Edwards (TV), Ciro Rodriguez, Gene Taylor (MS), Bart Stupak (MI), Collin Peterson (MN), Harry Teague (NM), John Tanner (TN), Allen Boyd (FL),Dennis Cardoza (CA), Eric Massa (NY), Steve Kagen (WI), Betsy Markey (CO), Paul Hodes (NH), Ron Kind (WI), Peter Welch (VT), Leonard Boswell (IA), Tim Ryan (OH), Walter Minnick (ID), John Boccieri (OH), Joe Donnelly (IN), Tom Perriello (VA), Earl Pomeroy (ND), Ben Chandler (KY), Martin Heinrich (NM), Debbie Halvorson (IL), Travis Childers (MS), Tim Walz (MN), Peter DeFazio (OR), Solomon Ortiz (TX), Paul Kanjorski (PA), Rick Boucher (VA), Mike McIntyre (NC), John Murtha (PA), Bart Gordon (TN), Zack Space (OH), Alan Mollohan (WV), Lincoln Davis (TN), Artur Davis (AL), Charlie Melancon (LA), John Barrow (GA), Christopher Carney (PA), Dan Boren (OK), Parker Griffith (AL), Charlie Wilson (OH), Heath Shuler (NC), Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD), Jim Marshall (GA), Jason Altmire (PA), Larry Kissell (NC), John Salazar (CO), Brad Ellsworth (IN), Frank Kratovil (MD), Glenn Nye (VA), Bobby Bright (AL), Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ), Joe Baca (CA)

Addendum: I've been asked various questions in the interesting set of comments to this piece. My responses are below.

In particular, these are replies to questions raised, among others, by comfreak, juliesa, Ashootlist Not Easily Fooled, WB999 and others.

1. Comfreak mentions NY state. It is noteworthy that New York city, which has the toughest gun laws, is far and away the safest city in the US (with a murder rate of 6 per 100,000. Compare Detroit (46), Baltimore (45), St. Louis (37) Newark (37), Dallas 16

2. International rates. Dos conservative is in denial of the evidence by comparison with other civilised, developed countries. No question about it. Gun free societies are far safer. Comparisons are complicated, but the disproportion is overwhelming. Tale of two cities: London's murder rate is 1.95 per 100,000, our safest city;'s is 6 per 100,000. Marc Mauer in the study by the Sentencing Project 2003: "For violent crimes, Americans are considerably less safe ..Of particular note is a comparison of murder rates. Over the past decade we have seen a sharp..decline, falling from a rate of 9.8 per cent 100,000 in 1951 to 5.6 in 2001..on the role of firearms..we can also note that as the only industrialised nation without strong gun control policies, guns clearly contribute to the disparity in murder rates...Guns are not the only cause of violence, but they do contribute to the higher rate of homicide - essentially it is far easier to kill someone with a gun than with a knife, fists, or other objects."

3. Assault Weapons Ban: I was well aware, juliesa, that machine guns have long been been banned. But a modern assault weapon that can fire hundreds of rounds in minutes by successive "single" shots is hardly an inferior killing machine.For the record, the federal assault weapons ban (AWB), a subtitle of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1999, included a prohibition on the sale to civilians of "certain semi-automatic so called 'assault weapons', including military style semiautomatic rifles, derived from assault rifles with lesser capabilities" (wikipedia). A study by the National Institute of Justice in March 1999—when it had been in operation only five years—suggested the "ban might have contributed to a reduction in the gun murder rate and murders of police officers by criminals armed with assault weapons." That is one of the reasons there is a move to continue the law. Its opponents have not produced any evidence of any damaging infringement of liberty beyond the scare-mongering that it menaces the 2nd amendment which it clearly has not and would not. .

3. The NRA and gun shows. Terrorists, criminals , and crazies, seek out unregulated unlicensed private sellers at shows, because they can pay cash and walk away without leaving any records. Criminals exploit this "gun show loophole" to sell as well as buy guns and police then have a tough time tracing who owned a crime weapon. Senator John McCain tried to close the loophole, but too many Senators heeded the NRA.To Pga and Not Easily Fooled, I'd ask why they support the NRA in resisting every single reasonable attempt to reduce the horrifying incidence of mass killings and the gunning down of policmen : the argument that background checks violate the 2nd amendment is spurious. And remember the 2nd amendment refers to a "well-regulated" militia.

I don't want to stop anyone exercising your 2nd amendment rights. I want to stop the mass killings.

RELATED STORY: John Avlon on why mass shooting are worse than the war.

Harold Evans, author of two histories of America, is writing his memoir. Editor at large of The Week, he was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-81 and The Times from 1981-82, founding editor of Condé Nast Traveler, and president of Random House Trade Group from 1990-97.