February 6, 2013 By Wayne Hanson
Americans raised on farms and in rural areas often have a comfortable relationship with firearms and use them for hunting birds or deer. Learning to shoot and safely handle a weapon is part of growing up, just like buying a fishing or hunting license, or learning to drive.
That comfortable reality was evident at a recent gun show in Auburn, Calif., a small community in the mountains east of Sacramento. Hundreds of people, kids and dogs filed up and down the aisles between folding tables covered with weapons of all kinds, from muzzle-loaders to old military firearms like British .303 Enfields to WWII German Lugers and the latest hunting rifles, pistols, knives and ammunition.
Prices ranged from $100 or so for a .22 rifle, to thousands for the newest hunting rifles and gun safes. Few military-style semi-automatic weapons were on display, but business at the National Rifle Association (NRA) booth was booming as it signed up new members -- and a $50 raffle ticket put one in a drawing for a selection of new rifles.
Most people seemed cheerful, from parents walking their toddlers to teen-aged boys talking with friends, and many stopped to pet the two black Labradors sitting on pillows atop a counter full of ammunition and reloading equipment.
But there is another reality, and the conflict was apparent, albeit abbreviated, on bumper stickers in the parking lot and for sale at the show. Along with NRA logos were such signs as:
And that conflict exists everywhere in America.
In fact, one needn't go much further than a big city to find the other side of the equation, the source of that conflicting reality -- guns brandished by criminals, gang members and the mentally ill. Milwaukee, Wis., Police Chief Edward Flynn articulates that reality very well; his passion embodies someone who, every day, has officers in peril on the street in an open carry state that now also allows concealed weapons.
Flynn, who at one time served as secretary of public safety under Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, commands an agency of 2,000 sworn officers and 700 civilians, serving a city of some 600,000 residents. "Our challenge is to keep firearms out of the hands of those who should not have them," said Flynn, "and that includes the criminal, the mentally ill, and substance abusers.
Flynn notes that there are gaping loopholes in who's required to undergo a background check. "That's got to change," he said. "Communities have a right to be free from firearms violence, particularly if it could have been prevented through prudent regulation."
Milwaukee has covered three square miles of city with ShotSpotter gunshot detectors, a system that located and dispatched officers to 2,424 gunshot incidents last year.
According to Flynn, Congress is responsible for some of the gun violence on Milwaukee streets. "In one year, I had six officers wounded by guns bought at the same store. And yet, ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives] is allowed to inspect them only once a year ... Congress basically arms the enemy," he said, adding that Congress makes sure the ATF cannot inspect gun dealers who sell guns to criminals, and that same Congress that wants to investigate the ATF underfunds it and deprives it of leadership.
"Somehow, political ideology on this issue trumps public safety," he said, noting that unfortunately for our country, "all sanity and rationality seemed to go out the window as soon as one begins to confront a notion of rational regulation of firearms. It's unconscionable."
Millions of dollars are spent intimidating Congress and wooing the unwary, Flynn said. "People are making enormous profits, and thousands of people are being murdered," he added. "There is a linkage here ... I've often wondered if anything bad enough could happen to get Congress' attention on this -- and the jury is still out."
The conflict of realities is intensely political, and discussions have been inconclusive to say the least. California, which has some of the toughest background checks in the nation, on Feb. 5 followed the lead of three Eastern states and introduced a bill to require gun owners to buy liability insurance.
But will insurance stop criminals and mass shooters? Will the gun owners of Auburn, Calif., comply? Stay tuned.
For what cities and counties can do to reduce gun violence, watch for the March issue of Government Technology Magazine.