This past week the news has been filled with the shootings at SuccessTech Academy in Cleveland, Ohio. Asa Coon, a 14 year old student entered the school with two revolvers and shot two students and two teachers before shooting himself. Closer to home in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, Dillon Casey, another 14 year old boy was intercepted with an entire arsenal of guns before he entered his high school to pull off a similar kind of shooting. On Friday (10/12) in Royersford, Pennsylvania the high school football game was cancelled after a teenager pulled a gun on another boy over a girlfriend. This week these incidents covered the front pages the Philadelphia area newspapers but on the back pages we continue to read of youth violence in the city continuing at a record pace.
Understandably, a great deal of talk has been generated about school security, the impact of bullying on the perpetrators, and the “warning signs” to look for in kids like these. However, no one seems to be asking a more basic question: where the hell did these kids get the guns? Conflicts between boys at school, bullies, and troubled teens are not new phenomena. Those issues were around when I was in high school and when my dad was in high school. This is not to say the behavior and emotional turmoil of such kids are not of concern, but we used to deal with these issues with words and fists. Rarely, did people end up getting killed, because no one had such easy access to guns.
On October 6, I attended a conference sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) on gun violence prevention. At that event I heard a speaker named Bryan Miller, who is the Executive Director of Cease Fire New Jersey (CFNJ). Several years ago Bryan left a job in international business to found CFNJ after his brother was gunned down by a teenager using an illegal handgun. His mission is simple: get illegal handguns off the street. His approach has been successful in New Jersey and now he has turned his sights on Pennsylvania, because the lax handgun laws in PA are fueling the trafficking of handguns up and down the Northeast.
Almost all youth violence occurs with the use of illegally purchased handguns. According the government statistics cited by Miller, only 25% of the criminal gun use in New Jersey is committed with guns bought in New Jersey. The rest of the guns come from Pennsylvania. The same is true for New York and Maryland. By contrast 80% of the criminal gun use in Pennsylvania comes from guns bought in Pennsylvania. Why is this? Because anyone over the age of 18, without a criminal record or a record of mental illness can buy as many handguns as they want with no waiting period. This lax policy fuels an illegal market for handguns.
According to Bryan Miller, here is how it works. Illegal gun marketers, who usually have criminal records, hire “straw buyers” to purchase guns on their behalf. A minimal background check is done with state and national databases for any record of criminal activity, and the buyer can walk out with the guns. Then, the straw buyer hands the guns to the illegal gun marketer for a small commission. The guns are then sold illegally in the underground market and there is no documentation of the real owner of the gun. When a crime is committed and the gun is traced back to straw buyers, they say the gun was lost or stolen, and nothing can be done. Those guns are out on the illegal market free and clear.
For years the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have tried to change the state laws on gun sales to no avail. They have even tried to pass laws simply within their own jurisdictions, and have been blocked by the state legislature. The National Rifle Association (NRA) which lavishly funds the campaign chests of most state and federal legislators (regardless of political party) opposes any restrictions of gun sales, and has blocked these efforts at every turn. While stating that they are representing the legal gun owners, the NRA is really serving its larger client, the gun industry. According to Bryan Miller, the gun industry is a mature industry, meaning they have sold as many legal guns as they are going to sell. So to expand their business they need the illegal market. As long as politicians feel beholden to the NRA and its wealthy coffers, laws designed to restrict the sale of handguns (as opposed to hunting rifles or sport guns) will not be changed. Bryan Miller’s strategy is to put pressure on the politicians to listen to the people instead of the NRA.
Miller has proposed two simple bills in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. HR 29 would require buyers to report to the police when their guns are lost or stolen. Failure to report would carry a fine and there would be a greater penalty if the gun was used in a crime. The goal of this bill is to discourage the practice of straw buying. The second Bill HB22 would limit buyers to purchase only one handgun a month. The purpose of this bill would be to make the task of purchasing illegal handguns much more difficult for buyers and marketers.
CFNJ was able to push through similar bills in New Jersey with dramatic results. Two Philadelphia Inquirer reporters wrote a story comparing handgun sales in PA and NJ. Each went into to buy a gun. In PA the reporter walked in and asked to buy a handgun and 45 minutes later he walked out of the store, gun in hand. In NJ the reporter needed to wait a month just to get permission to purchase the gun.
Bryan Miller helped start Cease Fire PA (CFPA). I would urge folks to check out their information and if you are in Pennsylvania write your representatives about these two bills. Miller believes from research he has done that there is overwhelming support for these bills once people understand (1) the true purpose of the bill is to restrict the sale of illegal handguns and (2) they don’t restrict the legal uses of guns for hunting, sport shooting, and collecting. If you don’t live in Pennsylvania, check out the laws in your own state. Chances are there is work to be done there as well.
Obviously, the job will not be complete until the gun companies are held accountable for their complicity in the illegal gun sales. Right now several cities (including Philadelphia and New York) have sought to sue the gun companies over their role in the illegal gun market, but thanks to the NRA-sponsored George W. Bush administration, most of those suits have been blocked by the Justice Department. However, just like the tobacco companies were finally brought to justice over their complicity in hiding the cancerous effects of smoking, so too the clock is ticking for the gun companies. They know it, and they will put up a smokescreen and a fight. So those who believe in peace must push back.