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Josh Sugarmann

Josh Sugarmann

Posted: April 29, 2009 09:51 AM

The First 100 Days and Guns


During the past 100 days, our nation has once again been shown the "price of freedom" as defined by the National Rifle Association.

Increasing violence on the U.S.-Mexico border -- much of it fueled by semiautomatic assault weapons purchased on the U.S. civilian market and trafficked into Mexico.

Eleven law enforcement officers shot and killed in just five separate incidents across our nation since mid-March.

The lives of entire families extinguished in gun-fueled murder-suicides amidst a growing concern that the economic crisis is playing an increasingly catalytic role in such events.

A series of shootings from mid-March to early April that should shock in their number and scope, but merely stand as the latest reminder of our nation's unique collective indifference to gun violence:

Alabama -- In a multi-town shooting spree, an unemployed 28-year-old man kills 10 people, including his mother and a toddler;

North Carolina -- A gunman shoots and kills seven residents and a nurse at a nursing home;

California -- Six people are shot and killed in a murder-suicide in an upscale Silicon Valley neighborhood home;

New York -- Thirteen people are shot and killed in a shooting rampage at an immigration services center in Binghamton.

Each of these incidents are just discrete examples of the estimated 84 Americans who die on average each day in our nation from guns.

Yet on Capitol Hill and in the White House, the response remains for the most part muted. Citing the perceived power of the National Rifle Association, calls for increased gun controls are dismissed on Capitol Hill as being unrealistic. With the selection of Eric Holder as Attorney General and Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, President Obama made it clear that his cabinet choices would not be determined by who the NRA attacks on the covers of its magazines. And the administration did derail an NRA-backed effort to allow the carrying of concealed handguns in national parks. But now even AG Holder finds himself in the surprising position of citing the NRA's catch-all solution to gun violence: enforce the gun laws on the books.

Even within these perceived political limits, the administration could do a lot more to stop gun violence through administrative actions. Yet the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) -- as opposed to its agents in the field -- remains an NRA beachhead, the primary concern of the agency's leadership never offending its "customer," the gun industry. For not having utilized many of the administrative powers already available to it, the administration's 100-days grade cannot rise above a C.

During the presidential campaign, then-candidate Obama specifically endorsed two policy goals toward which the administration could immediately make dramatic progress.

The first? Restricting the availability of semiautomatic assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. The U.S. gun industry has zealously embraced the enhanced lethality of military-style weaponry with little concern for the real-world impact such heightened firepower has beyond the gun store counter. In an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times this past Sunday, President Jimmy Carter wrote, "An overwhelming majority of Americans, including me and my hunting companions, believe in the right to own weapons..." Carter then added:

But none of us wants to own an assault weapon, because we have no desire to kill policemen or go to a school or workplace to see how many victims we can accumulate before we are finally shot or take our own lives. That's why the White House and Congress must not give up on trying to reinstate a ban on assault weapons, even if it may be politically difficult...


A majority of Americans also support banning assault weapons. Many of us who hunt are dismayed by some of the more extreme policies of the National Rifle Association, the most prominent voice in opposition to a ban, and by the timidity of public officials who yield to the group's unreasonable demands."

From 1989 up until the George W. Bush Administration, foreign-made assault rifles were banned from import into the United States. Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, the executive branch has the power to ban the import of non-sporting firearms under what is commonly know as the "sporting purposes" test. Under the George H.W. Bush Administration, in the wake of increasing drug-related violence, then-drug czar Bill Bennett led the charge to ban the import of foreign-made assault weapons like the UZI, AK-47, and numerous others. In response to gun industry efforts to circumvent the import ban, the measure was reviewed and tightened under the Clinton Administration. It was then promptly abandoned by the George W. Bush administration. Right now, the Obama administration could, with the stroke of a pen and without legislation, reinstate the ban (which is separate from the now-expired federal assault weapons ban) and end the import of these guns.

The second? Repeal the Tiahrt Amendment. This spending prohibition contained in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' appropriations language restricts the agency from releasing comprehensive crime gun trace data. Up until 2003 this comprehensive information had been available to law enforcement, policymakers, researchers, and policy organizations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Information is the foundation of effective public policy. And the lack of it is one of the gun lobby's greatest allies. Now we don't even know what the top crime gun is in America. Details of the President's 2010 budget have not yet been made public. But language fully repealing the Tiahrt Amendment, with strong White House support, would go a long way in ensuring that this information is once again readily available.

Enforce the gun laws on the books? Please do!