As a Philadelphia Eagles fan who by nature should take delight in any mishaps befalling opposing teams like the New York Giants, I should take some pleasure in seeing Giants star receiver Plaxico Burress being charged with illegal possession of a handgun after accidentally shooting himself in a nightclub. However, not only would such a reaction reveal a sick delight in another’s demise, but also would mask a much deeper sadness that grips me about the Burress event.
Burress shot himself in the leg with a loaded gun when he tried to grab it as it slid down inside of his sweatpants. At the time he was in an upscale night club in midtown Manhattan – not exactly a place where shootings generally occur. However, because Burress’ gun was not purchased legally (i.e. he did not have a permit to carry the gun), he is now facing 3 ½ years in jail for the possession of an illegal weapon. According to New York City law, the penalty for carrying an unlicensed gun carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 ½ years, the same minimum penalty as one would get for burglarizing a home. Before the law was enacted in 2006, Burress would have gotten a slap on the wrist and a year of probation for his act; now the stakes are higher.
Yet for me there is yet another depressing side to the story, which is how Burress got the gun and from whom. Currently, I am working with a group of folks planning an action in January to highlight the huge loopholes in Pennsylvania gun laws that allow for the illegal purchases of guns like Burress made. Right now in my state, illegal guns are largely secured through a process known as “straw purchasing.”
Here’s how the process works. An underground gun dealer, who is often a convicted felon and has served time, hires someone to purchase guns for him/her. This hired person is called a “straw purchaser.” The purchaser can buy as many guns as possible at one time, and so usually buys several. A simple background check is done, and if the person has no major crimes on his/her record, the purchase can be completed in less than 45 minutes. Once outside the store, the straw purchaser hands over the guns to the underground dealer for a commission, and the guns are untraceable to the new owner, the underground dealer. Those guns are then sold on the streets to petty criminals as well as law abiding citizens like Burress. If the gun is used in a crime, and the gun is traced back to the straw purchaser, they can simply say they lost the gun or that it was stolen, and no further questions are asked and no penalties are given.
The group I am working with is seeking to promote two laws. The first would limit handgun sales to one gun a month (thus restricting the bulk buying practice). The second law would require that anyone who has a handgun lost or stolen would be required to report that loss to police within 24 hours of discovering the loss or theft. Failure to do so would bring anywhere from a $500 fine up to 5 years in prison. The intention of this bill is to significantly discourage the process of straw purchasing. Similar laws passed in New Jersey and New York state have significantly reduced the straw purchasing practice in those states, with the result being that Pennsylvania has become a major supplier of illegal handguns to those and other surrounding states, as well as it own. Most often when violent criminals are caught they are found to be using these guns, so that passage of these laws is a key to reducing violent crime.
Despite the fact that Governor Ed Rendell, mayors and representatives of all Pennsylvania’s major cities, and most city police chiefs support these laws, they have not been able to get sufficient support. The major reason is that outstate representatives whose constituencies contain many hunters and gun collectors have not come on board, even though the proposed laws have nothing to do with hunting rifles or collector guns. Behind this resistance is a major effort by the National Rifle Association (NRA) to obfuscate the issue by claiming any gun laws limit legal gun owner’s rights and using phrases like “guns don’t kill people, people do.” So the NRA has poured tons of money into the political coffers of these representatives, thus binding them to the NRA position and blinding them to a simple set of laws that could reduce death if not violent crime. Behind the NRA are the gun manufacturers themselves who know that the illegal market is a huge business opportunity they can not afford to lose. Am I implying that the NRA and the gun manufacturer’s are complicit in the illegal market? Absolutely, I think their actions are criminal.
However what is sad in the Burress case is how far the illegal market spreads. Burress is a multimillion dollar athlete who can not only purchase a gun legally, but also can afford to hire bodyguards if he feels threatened (which is a reality for many celebrities). Yet for whatever reason, he chose to go on the underground market; and he is not the only one. The illegal gun market issue reaches the highest levels of society, and reveals not only our duplicity about the gun issue, but also how wedded we are to resolving conflicts violently. Furthermore, it reveals how far gun company corporate executives will go to make a buck. And it is shameful.
So as I watch the Eagles play the Giants I take no joy in Plaxico Burress’ absence, even though every time he plays, he burns my home team. His absence will create a hole of sadness in me for a world gone mad, and a society unwilling to take the practical, necessary steps to keep people from needlessly hurting and killing themselves through the use of illegal guns.
For more information on current efforts to change gun laws in Pennsylvania, go to Ceasefire Pennsylvania. For information about national efforts to change gun laws, and to learn about laws in other states go to Freedom States Alliance