Ambitious and certain to draw criticism, President Barack Obama’s plan to rid the nation of the most powerful weapons on the market and attempt to arrest mass and everyday shootings was expected by Congress Wednesday, marking a sharp turn in a decades-long fight to curb America’s gun violence.
As the debate was playing out in Washington, several local and national leaders gathered at the University of Chicago Tuesday evening to discuss guns and policy, with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose city holds the dubious “murder capital” title, among the group and pushing sweeping gun control legislation that cracks down on assault weapons. Also on the panel was Democratic political consultant David Axelrod, who this week said that the National Rifle Association’s recent assertion that Congress would not enact the sort of change that Obama and others were pressing, was off base. In fact, he said, real legislation will squeeze through the legislative process and signal real change in the nation’s laws and gun dialogue. Also in attendance was the head of the University of Chicago CrimeLab, who noted that while the United States has managed to improve its count of more common crime – property theft, etc. – we are dubiously at the top in terms of violence.
While this played out, the NRA issued statements condemning the actions of New York lawmakers over a sweeping move late Monday-early Tuesday to ban assault and other high-powered weapons while also addressing the difficult, more open issue of mental illness. This comes after media reports over the past week showing that mental illness is, seemingly, not often considered by gun dealers when selling weapons in this nation.
So even as Washington remains center stage this week in the fight to curb gun violence, increase purchase-point background checks, better mind the mental health of buyers and put tighter limits on the legal gun market - a rights and safety battle that has gone on for decades but whose profile was fast raised by last month’s Newtown school massacre – the ramifications were fast cascading through the country.
Here, in Illinois – and, more narrowly, high-crime Cook County and Chicago – most of the political bigs have joined in a loud call to end the bloodshed that claimed upwards of 500 lives last year. In fact, Cook County, even before the Connecticut shooting rampage that killed 20 children and six school employees at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the gunman and his mother, was on to a somewhat different and unique idea: Tax bullets and filter that money into hospitals to care for those wounded by gunfire. The slayings also counted some 100 minors among the victims – and many teenagers are also counted among the suspects or those arrested in the slayings.
Also in Illinois, the battle over concealed-carry permits or licenses has restarted after a state ban was recently declared unconstitutional. Before Illinois lifted the ban, 49 states had already allowed people to carry firearms with a permit.
According to Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association, the decision to allow people to carry concealed weapons would actually decrease violence, noting most mass shootings such as the Newtown shooting and the theater shooting in Aurora, CO earlier last year occurred in gun-free zones, where citizens were not allowed to have guns.
“So these gun-free zones become magnets for thugs and crazy people to attack other people because they know they can’t defend themselves,” Pearson said.
Although it is too early to see the impact of the lift, Illinois’ youth is deeply affected by firearms and, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, the state ranks among the top 10 in per capita gun-related homicide rates among children and teens.
And, as with other cities and states, policymakers here – as well as academics, editorialists, grassroots organizations and established institutions – Newtown was the impetus for upping the volume and speed of the political and everyday conversation on guns.
But while big names like Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, also a Democrat, drew much of the attention here – there is more focus growing up around Preckwinkle’s gun and bullet taxes. Preckwinkle, who also wants to ban assault weapons and joins Emanuel and Quinn at events on the issue, has been pushing twin taxes since October. The tax on gun purchases has passed and new restrictions take effect in April, with a planned $25 tax on firearm purchases to help pay for the sharp costs of public health and public safety. With the money raised, the county plans to shift $2 million toward violence prevention, intervention and reduction.
What remains an open question is whether the other proposal – to tax bullets and ammunition for these guns – will also get the nod and take effect to offset medical costs even more.
According to Cook County spokesman Owen Kilmer, the expected funds derived from the gun tax will primarily go to non-profit organizations that have known experience in violence prevention. At least $100,000 of the total will go towards education, enforcement, and straw purchases, or firearms purchased legally but then used for criminal activity.
Also, a seven-member advisory board at the county level will not only oversee the $2 million but also seek out effective models of gun control, and study the possible addition of a youth component.
But violence has always been a problem in Chicago with 2,051 shootings occurring in 2011 and about 700 more last year.
Chicago and Cook County residents met news of the tax and violence prevention pushes with as much skepticism as hope.
Those interviewed for the story, and polled by local media, apparently see the problem as less to do with the availability of guns, and more to do with youth falling through the cracks in the justice and child welfare systems, with broken families that, perhaps unintentionally, spin youth into the open arms of gangs through neglect, violence, and the chaos of troubled households.
With the tax still a couple of months off, there is no good way go gauge it’s potential. Yet, there are those like Briceson William, 28, a graduate of Austin High School on Chicago’s troubled West Side, who said the real problem lies with unemployment, deep poverty, poorly planned housing – and law enforcement, who, according to some crime and academic studies, are quick to throw minors in jail, crippling their opportunity to earn a decent living.
Mark Iris, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, attributes the high number of youth in jail to zero-tolerance policies here and elsewhere in the nation that criminalize ordinary classroom misbehavior. Taken with the high number of police in schools after the high-crime 1980s and 1990s – an issue given greater profile after Newtown – the zero-tolerance policies have, according to many of the same studies, created an atmosphere in schools where police interactions and quick responses to students and disciplinary problems have raised the number of police-juvenile interactions and, consequently, trips to police stations, courts, and even juvenile detention.
In fact, juvenile detention in Chicago has been a topic for debate. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has said the high rate of incarceration of minors should be wholly eliminated, that juvenile detention under her watch should be “blown up,” and, ultimately, that “we shouldn’t have a jail for kids. Period.”
According to the Chicago Youth Justice Data Project, in 2009 alone, the number of youth detained in Cook County juvenile detention centers was 5,608 – and roughly 84 percent of that population was African American, 12 percent Hispanic and 3 percent white. Overall population statistics for Chicago, which is in Cook County, show a split of about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third white.
Not only is juvenile detention heavily skewed towards the black population today, but go back 10 years to a 2002 study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, which showed that, very often, youth in solitary confinement do not receive any kind of educational training. Without such training, black and other minority youth are, by definition, ill-equipped to make a decent living once released and actually contribute to society instead of dragging it down with the high medical costs associated with violence, the steep costs of incarceration and courts and the high number of police. Studies show that turning schools into a sort of “police state,” as some legislators at the local and national level have put it, actually retards progress by halting a minor’s potential before it has a chance to be realized.
For example, once a youth enters the juvenile system – especially through the justice side but also through agencies like the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services or the county’s Public Guardian’s office – and have their records marred with a felony, the chances of them earning a job quickly diminish. Additionally, without proper education, the window of opportunity gets smaller.
“[When] in a juvenile center of some sort, or juvenile detention setting, it’s certainly going to disrupt [the youth’s] school progress, and realistically for many of these youths, they would have been at risk, [in a] disadvantaged position anyway,” Iris said.
“We can put the guns down if we get money, jobs,” William said. “[The government] gives us nothing to do. We’re sitting around twiddling our fingers all day long with nothing to do, looking at each other, walking down the street daily. I mean, something’s bound to happen.”
Angela Reavers, 36, an accountant from the South Side of Chicago, agreed that violence spins from a vicious cycle – one that often begins with the justice system or the child welfare system. And once a child is caught up in that system, the crossover between child welfare and justice is frequent and it becomes increasingly difficult to break free to a kind of normal life.
For her part, Reavers said, many times when young men and women are released from jail, they aren’t rehabilitated or given the proper tools to find a job. According to a 2006 report released by the Justice Policy Institute, the system is weighted heavily against blacks and Hispanics as white youth tend to have better access to programs and services.
Locked into this cycle, they many times ask themselves, “What do I do to live, to eat?” and in search of money, head out to the streets to find a way to provide for themselves. According to William, this plight was not only his, but many other’s as well.
After winning back his freedom, William said he has had to “hustle,” or sell whatever items he can find: clothes, socks, and shoes. “I gotta eat,” he said.
And so the lure of community in gangs becomes all the more appealing. Reavers said much of the violence and feeling of separation that feeds the gang network stems from a lack of a father figure. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 report, 51.2 percent of African American children in one-parent families lived with their mothers, whereas 3.5 percent of children in single-parent families lived with their fathers.
“Young men go to gangs because their fathers are not at home,” said Reavers, explaining the youth’s need for a sense of family. “And to a certain extent, gangs care; that’s what [youth] are looking for.”
But despite his conviction that Chicago has failed its youth and his belief that gun violence will only increase, William acknowledges that improvements have been made to better the lives of the neighborhood’s youth.
“I see they’re starting to [do] a lot of after school programs and stuff like that,” William said. “That’s good.”
Just across the street from where William and his friends spent the afternoon, East Garfield’s Richard T. Crane Technical Preparatory High School offers after-school work-study programs for its students to learn basic job-finding skills. Students like Marcus Hallam, 18, a senior, leave class early in order to attend a program where students are taught skills such as interviewing techniques. He is preparing to apply to colleges and possibly seek a sports scholarship.
Despite the acceleration of laws and talk and promises after such a violent year in Chicago, and the Sandy Hook tragedy, finding a solution to gun violence remains daunting. Small steps might be the answer, according to some observers, and Cook County’s proposals to tax weapons to raise funds for uninsured victims of shootings, which make up about 70 percent of victims, could prove a concrete start.
But, this too was met with some hesitancy, as William said he sees no clear purpose to the tax. “People [are] still going to get shot. [The politicians] [are] only taxing them for money [purposes], for their purpose, for their pockets. They aren’t taxing them for our pockets, [there isn’t any] money coming out here for us. The politicians in Illinois are untruthful, can’t be trusted.”
What many say is most important is that violence – chiefly that committed with firearms – needs to be stopped for upcoming generations. Termaine Johnson, 16, is a sophomore at Crane Tech. While he sees the county’s tax push as a “nice” way to raise revenues for gunshot victims, ultimately what he wants is an end to the violence that so bloodies Chicago and hurts the reputation of a city that is otherwise so prominent in business and culture.
“People…dying left and right…for nothing,” he said. “I just wish it could stop.”
This story appears in The Chicago Bureau. Bureau Editor Eric Ferkenhoff contributed to this story.
Photo by Natalie Krebs.
Initiatives emerging from shootings may conflict with efforts to reduce police involvement in school discipline
As the White House considers proposals to allocate federal money for armed guards in schools, prominent school-discipline reform groups have issued a report denouncing the idea as a misguided reaction to the Newtown school shooting.
“Placing more police in schools has significant and harmful unintended consequences for young people that must be considered before agreeing to any proposal that would increase the presence of law enforcement in schools,”says an issue brief released Friday by the Advancement Project, Dignity in Schools and other organizations.
The Advancement Project, founded in 1999, has offices in Washington D.C. and California, and has worked with school districts and states to adopt alternatives to school suspensions and expulsions. Dignity in Schools is also devoted to working with school districts, advocating fewer school suspensions and less involvement of law enforcement in school discipline.
The groups called on the White House and Congress, before they act, to consider how the school-discipline climate changed after more police were introduced to schools in response to the Columbine school shootings nearly 15 years ago in Colorado.
“We have seen what happens when [schools] ramp up police presence and other security measures in response to a shooting or other violent act. In Colorado, it resulted in more students getting arrested for minor misbehaviors, more students being pushed out of school, and a declining sense of safety in schools,” the brief says.
“These unintended consequences,” the report continues, “are persistent and pervasive – despite efforts by parents, students, and the school district, the high arrest rates and racial disparities that resulted from increased police presence and zero tolerance policies still exist.”
Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading a new White House effort on gun control and school safety, is reportedly interested in the idea of allocating federal money to schools that wish to have armed guard protection, according to a recent report by the Washington Post.
The idea is being championed by one of Congress’ most ardent liberals, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who told the Post that Biden is “very, very interested” in a plan she presented to finance the deployment of police officers at schools.
“I don’t see why anyone should object to it, left or right,” Boxer told the Post. “It’s an area where I think I can find common ground with my colleagues on all sides.”
Biden has met with a number of different groups this week in his role as leader of the post-Newtown effort —among them the National Rifle Association.
The NRA, under scrutiny for its intense efforts to preserve gun-ownership liberties, has suggested that schools consider training and arming teachers or other appointed staff inside schools. The NRA has offered to pay for and provide training.
"If we truly cherish our kids more than our money or our celebrities, we must give them the greatest level of protection possible and the security that is only available with a properly trained — armed — good guy," NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre said at a press conference explaining the group’s recommendations.
LaPierre also urged Congress to appropriate “whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school.”
But in its Friday brief, the Advancement Project, whose ideas have gained traction recently in Washington, reacted with dismay to both the NRA and Boxer’s recommendations.
Following the Newtown killings, Boxer also proposed placing National Guard in schools.
“We object to using the limited resources of the federal government to expand the presence of police in schools,” the Advancement Project brief says. “More specifically, we oppose the legislation offered late last Congress by Senator Barbara Boxer to facilitate the installation of National Guard troops in U.S. schools. We cannot support any such actions that have not been shown to make schools safer and instead can lead to terrifying, fatal mistakes.”
The Advancement Project report cites specific examples of students ticketed or arrested for minor infractions in various cities with a beefed-up school police presence, including Denver, Colo., New York City and Los Angeles, as reported by the Center for Public Integrity in a series of recent stories recently.
In Denver, where parent-led reforms are now aiming to reverse harsh discipline practices, schools saw a 71 percent jump in referrals of students to police or courts between 2000 and 2004. Most referrals, the brief notes, were for minor infractions such as using obscenities, disruptive appearance and destruction of non-school property.
“Serious conduct, like carrying a dangerous weapon to school, accounted for only 7% of the referrals,” the report says.
The Obama Administration has noticed these patterns, the report also says, and has taken action to encourage or require schools to adopt alternatives to suspensions and involvement of law enforcement in discipline matters.
On Dec. 12, Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis testified at the first congressional hearing on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. That’s a term coined by groups arguing that the involvement of police in what should be school disciplinary matters is putting some students, especially low-income minorities, on a path to more serious trouble.
This was first reported by the Center for Public Integrity.
Photo by Brad Graverson/Torrance Daily Breeze.
The Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) has published numerous studies analyzing firearms-related deaths and injuries data, but over the last 16 years, the NCIPC hasn’t conducted a single study exploring why such acts of violence take place.
The reason, several former CDC directors say, is because pro-gun lobbyists made the topic of gun violence research forbidden through several measures adopted in the mid 1990s.
In 1996, several legislators co-sponsored an amendment that would cut the CDC’s budget, with a House Appropriations Committee adopting an additional amendment that prohibited CDC funding “to advocate or promote gun control.” Eventually, $2.6 million was removed from the CDC’s budget -- the exact amount that the NCIPC spent on firearms injuries studies a year prior.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has long been critical of the CDC, with NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre recently telling the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) that he believed the agency was promoting a political agenda through the NCIPC in 1995.
Other gun proponents agreed. Former Georgian congressman Bob Barr -- a member of the NRA board -- said that firearms violence is “nothing CDC should be involved in.”
“It has nothing to do with health,” he is quoted by the AJC. “I don’t think when the CDC was created there would by any contemplation that they would be studying firearms as a health issue.”
Several ex-CDC directors, however, claim that gun lobbyists have effectively eliminated any possibility of meaningful firearms research studies being conducted today, with former director of NCIPC Mark Rosenberg going as far as to say that “the scientific community has been terrorized by the NRA.
Dr. David Satcher, a CDC director when the budget cuts and amendments were passed, said that the restriction of research serves as a threat to both public health and democracy.
“It is sad when you really think about it,” he is quoted by the AJC. “We are in an environment when children are dying and we are playing political games.”
Today, researchers financed by the CDC are required to contact the agency when planning to publish firearms-related research. The CDC then forwards the information to the NRA “as a courtesy.”
RAND Corp.’s Arthur Kellermann said that now, the number of gun violence studies being published is just a fraction compared to the research released prior to the mid-1990s CDC budget cuts and amendments.
“It is almost impossible today to get federal funding for firearm injury prevention research,” he is quoted by the AJC. “I have to acknowledge that the (NRA) strategy of shutting down the pipeline of science was effective.”
Photo courtesy of Mike Saechang via Flickr.
Gun-rights group used endorsements, campaign cash and political pressure to expand concept of self-defense
This story originally appeared on iWatchnews.org by The Center for Public Integrity
In 2004, the National Rifle Association honored Republican Florida state legislator Dennis Baxley with a plum endorsement: Its Defender of Freedom award.
The following year, Baxley, a state representative, worked closely with the NRA to push through Florida’s unprecedented “stand your ground” law, which allows citizens to use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” their safety is threatened in a public setting, like a park or a street.
People would no longer be restrained by a “duty to retreat” from a threat while out in public, and would be free from prosecution or civil liability if they acted in self-defense.
Florida’s law is now under a cloud as a result of the controversial February shooting of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla. The 28-year-old shooter, George Zimmerman, who was licensed to carry a gun — and once had a brush with police — claims he acted in self-defense after a confrontation with Martin, and some legal experts say Florida’s law could protect Zimmerman, who has not been charged. The case has inflamed passions nationwide in part because Zimmerman is Hispanic and Martin was African-American. Baxley, whose state party has benefited from large NRA donations, contends his law shouldn’t shield Zimmerman at all because he pursued Martin.
The NRA has been curiously quiet on the matter since the shooting as the nation takes stock — in light of the Martin case and other similar examples — of whether “stand-your-ground” laws are more dangerous than useful to enhance public safety. The gun-rights organization did not respond to requests for comment. But the group’s silence contrasts sharply with its history of unabashed activism on stand-your-ground legislation. Since the Florida measure passed, the NRA has flexed its considerable muscle and played a crucial role in the passage of more than 20 similar laws nationwide.
The Florida law is rooted in the centuries-old English common law concept known as the “Castle Doctrine,” which holds that the right of self-defense is accepted in one’s home. But the Florida law and others like it expand that established right to venues beyond a home.
Since Florida adopted its law in 2005, the NRA has aggressively pursued adoption of stand-your-ground laws elsewhere as part of a broader agenda to increase gun-carrying rights it believes are rightly due citizens under the 2ndAmendment.
To gain attention and clout at the state level, the NRA has ponied up money and offers endorsements to legislators from both parties. The NRA and the NRA Political Victory Fund, its political action committee, have donated about $2.6 million to state-level political campaigns, committees and individual politicians since 2003, according to records compiled by the National Institute on Money and State Politics.
And ambitious politicians take note that the NRA is heavily invested and involved in congressional races.
The organization showered the Florida Republican Party Committee with a total of $125,000 in donations between 2004 and 2010. That sum tops the list of all NRA donations to state party committees between 2003 and 2012, according to National Institute on Money in State Politics records. The Senate Republican Campaign Committee of New York was next with $119,700.
The NRA energetically monitors state elections, from governor’s races down to the most obscure special election for a state legislative seat — if the seat is considered crucial — and, as its legislative action website shows, it regularly mobilizes constituents to flood lawmakers with calls and e-mails.
Following the Florida victory, the “Stand Your Ground” movement accelerated. In July 2006, the NRA posted celebratory news on its website, noting that legislators in eight more states — Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and South Dakota — had already followed Florida’s lead.
“This train keeps a rollin’ — Castle Doctrine Sweeps America,” the NRA’s 2006 message said. The campaign, the group said, “is turning focus from criminals’ rights to those of the law-abiding who are forced to protect themselves.”
Since then, a host of other states have passed various laws expanding the “Castle Doctrine.” Among them: Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee Texas, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.
To spread the word, the NRA said in an Aug. 12, 2005 website posting, it approached the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which drafts legislation for like-minded state lawmakers. ALEC, as it is known, adopted model stand-your-ground legislative language in 2005 after Florida’s top NRA representative made a presentation.
And along the way key lawmakers benefited from NRA support. In Indiana, for instance, GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels, who took office in 2005, received $12,400 in NRA donations between 2004 and 2008. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue got $7,500 from the group between 2004 and 2006. Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s attorney general, received $22,500 between 2004 and 2008.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing quite everywhere. An emotional debate in Minnesota this year resulted in passage of a proposal in both houses, which are GOP-controlled, but a veto just this month from Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. A couple of GOP lawmakers changed their votes from no to yes in the course of the legislative process, state records show.
“We had a few people tell us apologetically and privately that they were afraid of the NRA,” said Joan Peterson, a Minnesota activist with the Northland chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Proponents didn’t get enough votes to override Dayton’s veto.
Heather Martens, executive director of Citizens for a Safer Minnesota, which opposed the proposal, said that a newly elected Democratic legislator who reluctantly voted yes had faced a tough special election campaign in 2011. At the center of the campaign were accusations that she would be anti-gun.
“Take your best shot,” a Minnesota Republican Party-sponsored mailer against Democrat Carly Melin said back then, urging voters to protect their gun rights from St. Paul liberals.
The Minnesota bill’s Republican sponsors, state Rep. Tony Cornish and state Sen. Gretchen Hoffman — who is now running for Congress against a Democrat who's had NRA support — did not respond to requests to discuss their proposal.
Opposition to the laws has gone beyond gun-control activists. Some of the staunchest critics the NRA has faced while promoting “stand your ground” laws have been state police chief’s and sheriffs’ associations and district attorneys’ groups.
In 2007, the Virginia-based National District Attorneys Association issued a report, “Expansions to the Castle Doctrine,” warning that the phenomenon “could have significant implications for public safety and the justice system’s ability to hold people accountable for violent acts.”
Scott Burns, the association’s executive director, said legislators’ decisions to buck law-enforcement officials on this issue can only be explained by “the volatile issue of guns rights and the 2nd Amendment.” He said many of these laws, in his opinion, have nothing to do with the true intent of the Castle Doctrine.
How can the Castle Doctrine apply, he said, seven miles from your home, at a shopping mall?
In Florida, the Tampa Bay Times reported that “justifiable homicides” in Florida spiked after the 2005 law, from an average of 34 yearly to more than 100 in 2007.
Prosecutors said the law permitted gang-related assailants from being prosecuted after a 2008 shoot-out in Tallahassee that killed a 15-year-old boy, the paper reported. A judge dismissed charges based on the “stand your ground” defense.
In 2010, Trevor Dooley, upset about a skateboarder on a Valrico, Fla., basketball court, marched into a park with a handgun, for which he was licensed and legally able to take into the park. Dooley ended up in a confrontation with David James, who was in the park with his young daughter. Dooley and James scuffled and Dooley shot James dead. In a case that is still pending, he was arrested for manslaughter but also claims he is protected by the “stand your ground” law.
Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence, accuses the NRA of “feeding on fear and paranoia” to expand concepts such as the Castle Doctrine. His group’s research, he said, shows that politicians can survive an NRA stamp of disapproval more than they think, and that his priority is to convince more politicians the group is a “paper tiger.”
“We are behind closed doors with politicians all the time,” Gross said, “who say they want to do the right thing, but that the gun lobby will ruin them.”
Back in Florida, the soul-searching about the law has now extended to the legislature. Baxley, the sponsor, told CBS News that “sometimes the application or interpretation of its use is the problem.” He defended the law as important to “law-abiding citizens,” but suggested, according to other reports, that perhaps legislators should look at limiting crime-watch volunteers’ ability to pursue people and confront them.
“Nothing,” he said, “is ever finished in the legislature.”
Photo by Clay Duda | JJIE.org