There Is A Way To Keep Guns Out Of The Wrong Hands. Let Doctors Decide.

NRA Headquarters, Fairfax Virginia USA

NRA Headquarters, Fairfax Virginia USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we approach the Newtown anniversary everyone’s going to weigh in with their thoughts about gun control, so here’s mine.  I believe the NRA is more right than wrong in questioning the motives of many of the proponents of more gun control.  They are correct when they say that just about all gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens who don’t need to jump through yet more legal hoops in order to buy or own guns.

At the same time, the NRA should stop diluting the force of their argument and keep their nose out of places where it doesn’t belong.  And one place they don’t belong is challenging the right of physicians to talk to their patients about guns.  Their attempt to criminalize such efforts by physicians (‘Docs versus Glocks’) is both stupid and wrong.  And here are the reasons why.

Every day in Emergency Rooms all over the country, people wander in complaining of various degrees of mental distress.  Unless they present a “clear and present danger” to themselves or anyone else, they are free to leave and, if we follow the argument of the NRA, they can walk out into the street even if they walked into the ER with a gun.  Physicians can restrain a person in the ER who is drunk and might, if released, drive off in his car.  But unless an individual actually threatens someone with his gun, the physician who even asks the patient whether he has a gun is, according to the NRA, trampling on the guy’s 2nd Amendment rights, and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

In 2004 a woman in Indianapolis called the police and reported that her 24-year old son was exhibiting dangerous signs of mental distress.  The cops found the kid in possession of multiple guns and ammunition, briefly took the guns away but within several days let the young man reclaim ownership of his guns.  Eight months later the young man, Kenneth Anderson, shot and killed his mother, a police officer, and then was shot and killed by the police.

I don’t know whether in the intervening period this troubled young man ever saw a physician or other medical professional even though he was clearly at risk.  But I do know that even if he had been seen by a physician, the NRA’s position would be that the doctor would not have been able to ask him about his guns.  The NRA is trying to have it both ways.  On the one hand, they say that the mental health system needs to be ‘fixed.’  On the other hand, they don’t want physicians to be able to close a gap in mental health treatment simply through asking appropriate questions and using common sense.

If you walk into a doctor’s office and you’re obese, the physician would be violating the Hippocratic Oath if he or she didn’t tell you to lose some weight. Not everyone who weighs too much is going to live a shortened life, but the physician isn’t violating your privacy by telling you that your weight is putting you at risk.  If someone walks into an ER or a doctor’s office and exhibits symptoms of emotional distress, anyone who would deny that gun ownership by that individual constitutes a risk, has no business engaging in a rational discussion or debate about guns.

The 2nd Amendment gives us the right to arm and protect ourselves from the bad guys in our midst.  It doesn’t give anyone the right to prevent physicians from finding out whether someone’s behavior might turn them into a bad guy whether they meant to be bad or not.

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Coming Up: The Next SCOTUS Gun Case

NRA Headquarters, Fairfax Virginia USA

NRA Headquarters, Fairfax Virginia USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You may recall that in the debate over a new gun bill earlier this year, the major issue was whether to expand the FBI background check system to cover private sales. Proponents of expanded checks (Bloomberg, et. al.) argued that background checks helped prevent “straw sales,” thus keeping guns out of the wrong hands; opponents of the measure (NRA) said that there was no reason to further restrict law-abiding citizens from exercising their constitutional rights to own guns.

Now the Supreme Court has decided to hear a straw sales case concerning a transaction that took place in Virginia where a former state trooper, Bruce Abramski, was convicted of committing a straw sale purchase because he bought a gun for his uncle but stated on the background check form (ATF Form 4473) that the gun was for himself. Abramski argued that there was nothing illegal about the sale because his uncle was, in fact, legally able to buy a gun. Therefore, since the intent of the statute and the background check was to keep guns from getting into the wrong hands, the defendant’s transfer of the gun to his uncle didn’t violate the law at all.

Abramski is represented by the NRA, whose attorneys discovered a split at the federal appellate level over how to handle straw sales. Several circuits have upheld the government’s contention that making a false statement on the 4473 is, in and of itself, a violation of the law, regardless of the intention or additional facts in the case. But the Fifth Circuit held in US vs. Polk, that purchasing a gun for someone else, as long as the latter individual also qualified to own a gun, was completely permissible within the statute that applies to the 4473. The SCOTUS has agreed to hear the case and resolve the apparent dispute between the different appellate courts.

Who was this guy Polk whose conviction for lying on a 4473 Form was overturned by the 5th Circuit? It turns out that Polk didn’t actually purchase the gun or guns in question; the real straw purchase was committed by a guy named Davidson who was acting on instructions from Polk. And the reason that Polk instructed Davidson to buy more than 40 guns for him, along with plastic explosives, grenades, a light tank anti-weapons system and a machine gun was that he allegedly represented an organization called ‘Constitutional America’ that was planning a rebellion to restore America to its “common-law roots.” Polk was finally arrested, charged and convicted of soliciting various crimes of violence, along with “aiding and abetting” a straw purchase even though he didn’t actually fill out the 4473.

The NRA wants SCOTUS to exonerate the Virginia state trooper who lied on the 4473, using as precedent a wacko in Texas who got somebody else to lie on his behalf. It would be nice if Mother Theresa was the defendant every time an attorney wanted a conviction overturned, but a guy who wants to blow up IRS offices and assassinate judges and police officers all over the country deserves just as much consideration if the law was used improperly to get a conviction in his case. On the other hand, it seems to me that the NRA is really scraping the bottom of the barrel by trying to assert a constitutional right to gun ownership because everyone involved in the transaction is legally entitled to own a gun. The 4473, with all its shortcomings, doesn’t give the purchaser the right to decide for himself whether the gun will eventually wind up in law-abiding hands.

Abramski could have avoided the entire problem by having his Virginia dealer send the gun directly to his uncle’s dealer in Pennsylvania; licensed dealers do this all the time. If the SCOTUS decides this case in favor of Abramski and the NRA, we might as well get rid of the background check system all together. But isn’t that what the NRA wants?

Dick Metcalf Speaks Up About Gun Control And The NRA Stays Silent

One of the most esteemed and long-time gun supporters, Dick Metcalf, recently came out with an article that supports the bizarre idea that people who walk around with guns should have training before they do so.  What makes Metcalf’s comments so significant is that his essay appeared in the December issue of Guns and Ammo magazine, the most widely-circulated commercial firearms magazine in the world.  Metcalf has been writing for G&A for decades and he was instrumental in advising Senator Jim McClure and Congressman Harold Volkmer on the drafting of the McClure-Volkmer Act, which corrected some of the abuses of the 1968 law that created federal regulation of retail and interstate gun sales.

Metcalf makes the argument, similar to an argument that you have seen in my posts, that the 2nd Amendment does not prohibit the government from regulating firearms, a point underscored by Scalia in the majority decision – District of Columbia Versus Heller – that affirmed the 2nd Amendment right to own a gun for self defense.  Scalia put it this way: “Nothing in our opinion should cast doubt on well-established laws…that regulate the legal commerce in firearms.”

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Justice Scalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ever since Heller, the NRA and its supporters have been going all out to justify the spread of concealed-carry laws based on the notion that the 2nd Amendment covers any sort of firearm use for self-protection in the home or anywhere else.  In fact, last week the SCOTUS refused to hear, without comment, a Maryland case in which the concealed-carry statute gives police the authority to grant concealed privileges only if an applicant can prove need.  There are a number of other concealed-carry laws that are currently moving through the courts and it’s not clear when or if the SCOTUS will decide to clarify the Heller decision with reference to concealed carry.  But if they do rule that concealed-carry laws are not an unquestioned extension of the 2nd Amendment right to own a gun, then a very major part of the NRA’s strategy to extend gun ownership goes right down the drain.

What Metcalf argues is no different from what many of us have been saying, namely, that if you want the privilege of walking around with a gun you should be required to take serious training in using it properly. There are very few states that require any special training for concealed carry permits; in my home state – Massachusetts – you don’t even need to shoot a gun one time in order to qualify for a concealed carry license.

Metcalf’s comments are attracting the usual screams and yells from the “take it from my cold, dead hands” crowd but the NRA, which usually jumps up and down when someone tries to put any limitations on gun ownership, has been quiet on this one.  And the reason that the NRA doesn’t want to go after Metcalf is: 1) he’s been a very important link between the NRA and pro-gun members of Congress; and 2) the NRA would prefer not to get into a public argument over whether gun owners who want to carry concealed weapons need to be trained. After all, the NRA has been obsessively promoting “safety” and “responsibility” since Newtown.  Why remind people that they have also been promoting an extension of unrestricted concealed carry laws at the same time?

Great News! Illinois Finally Joins The Rest of America in Letting Its Citizens Carry Guns

The Illinois legislature has just passed a concealed-carry bill and the Governor may have no choice but to sign it into law. Until now, Illinois was the only one of fifty states that did not allow its citizens to go around packing a gun.  But a court decision last year and some very aggressive lobbying by – you guessed it – the NRA, finally brought the Land of Lincoln into line.

You would think that with all the recent attention being paid to concealed carry of handguns, plus a long history as a state that regulates ownership of guns, that the new concealed-carry law in Illinois might serve as a model for an intelligent and responsible legislative effort to give the state’s citizens the right to be armed.  To the contrary, the law has parts that are silly, parts that are stupid, and parts that are just bizarre.  Did the folks in Springfield even read the bill before they voted?

Here’s a bizarre part: An individual must apply for the CC license to the State Police and the application then circulates to all law enforcement agencies within the state for comments and review.  If an applicant has three arrests for gang-related offenses (yes – you read it correctly) during the seven years prior to the application, the State Police must refer the application to a Review Board, which will then make a final determination.  If the Board believes that this individual does not pose a danger to himself or anyone else, the application goes forward.

Now with all due respect to being innocent until proven guilty, how far are we going to stretch the 5th and 6th Amendments in order to protect the 2nd? I mean, give me a break.  Does this law mean that if someone was arrested only twice for “gang-related offenses” that their carry-concealed application might be approved?

That’s the most bizarre part of the law.  Want a stupid part?  How about the safety course that requires someone to show proficiency in using a handgun by shooting a total of 30 rounds?  Well I guess that’s better than the safety course required for concealed-carry permits in Florida where the live fire consists of a single round.  I’m one to talk because my home state – Massachusetts – issues the license to carry without any live fire requirement at all.  That’s really stupid, but so is the new Illinois law that gives citizens the right to carry and use a gun in self-defense  with proof of proficiency that’s no real proof at all.

As for a silly part, try this one.  During the safety training, the applicant must also be taught the “appropriate and lawful interaction with law enforcement while transporting or carrying a concealed firearm.”  What does that mean?  As a NRA-certified instructor who has trained several thousand men and women in safe use and shooting of guns, I’ll tell you what it means.  It means nothing at all.

One more point (it’s a toss—up between bizarre and stupid so let’s just call it dumb.) The new law does not permit bringing a concealed weapon into a bar but allows concealed guns in restaurants where liquor is served, as long as – get this – the liquor tab is less than 50% of the total bill.  So I sit down with you; you order food, I get smashed on a couple of drinks but your steak cost more than my Jack Daniels.  Oh, by the way, I’m carrying a gun.  And if a town decides it doesn’t want to allow such dumbness, the law overrides any local carry-concealed restrictions anyway.

I belong to an organization called Evolve.  We started this organization because we want to have a rational and realistic discussion about gun violence that will avoid the ideological extremes which characterize the discussion now.  And we want to focus on gun safety and the need for everyone to stand for responsible ownership and use of firearms.  We have no issue with people owning or carrying guns as long as everyone plays by sensible and effective rules.   The new Illinois law is neither sensible nor effective.  It’s just another example of how two extremes dominate a discussion while the rational middle remains silent and another opportunity for meaningful reform goes right down the drain.