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Samuel Hoover Headshot

Easy Access to Guns Fuels Hate Groups

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These are dangerous days. In our uncertain political and economic times, the U.S. is experiencing a surge in right-wing violence and intimidation. Perhaps driven by fear of these uncertainties, individuals with such a radical ideological bent are increasingly threatening to harm our democratic civic institutions and progressive-minded political and social organizations. The rise in hate groups and individuals is being nurtured by reckless, mendacious broadcast and print media pundits - including elected officials and political candidates - who incite violence against these targets.

Take, for example, the July 18, 2010, incident involving Byron Williams in Oakland, California. Williams, an ex-felon and self-professed fan of Fox News' Glenn Beck, was strongly influenced by Beck's tirades against organizations like the ACLU and San Francisco-based Tides Foundation that claimed the groups are "shady organizations" that funnel money to "some of the most extreme groups on the left" and are working to take control of the U.S. government. In fact, Williams was so upset that he donned body armor, armed himself with three guns, and set out to "start a revolution" by killing people at the Northern California ACLU and the Tides Foundation. Williams may have succeeded in his murderous goals had he not been stopped for erratic driving by the California Highway Patrol in Oakland and engaged them in a freeway gun battle, only to be ultimately subdued by law enforcement.

In August 2009, the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report detailing the rise in anti-government militias and right-wing hate groups that have been resurrected, in part, with the support of right-of-center elected officials and certain mainstream media outlets. Recently we've heard increasingly violent threats from radical political candidates faced with the prospect of losing an election to a political rival promoting "Second Amendment remedies" as a way to remove their opponents from office. Other extremists have advocated for the violent overthrow of the government and use guns and other violent imagery in political messages. Such motivational rhetoric would ring hollow and fail to pose a legitimate threat to members of civil society if those susceptible to acting upon such rhetoric did not have access to essential ingredients to facilitate violence: guns and ammunition.

Firearms and ammunition are too easily accessible in this country, and flaccid federal and state gun laws are primarily to blame. Glaring gaps in our gun laws allow criminals and other prohibited possessors access to firearms through traffickers, straw purchases, and private firearm transfers at gun shows and elsewhere, allowing such individuals to evade background checks and recordkeeping requirements and obtain guns. Except in a select few states, private firearm sales - those that do not involve federally licensed dealers - aren't subject to background checks. Alarmingly, private gun transfers account for an estimated 40% of all firearm transfers each year. Such loopholes keep us awash in guns and allow the public to be easily victimized by a prohibited possessor carrying a firearm. In 2007 alone, FBI statistics show that 385,178 crimes were committed with guns.

Our current patchwork of minimal federal gun regulation and wildly varying state laws is ineffective in making significant reductions in gun deaths and injures, and serves to arm criminals and militia types. States with strong laws designed to reduce gun deaths and injuries are undermined by traffickers who use the laws of weaker states to obtain guns and then pour these guns into the "strong law" states - into the waiting hands of militiamen, and even felons and the mentally ill.

How can we stem such easy access to guns? A growing body of evidence indicates that stronger firearm regulations may be having a positive effect at deterring gun violence. Recent research by Mayors Against Illegal Guns (MAIG) finds that states with weak gun laws are disproportionately the top sources of firearms recovered in out-of-state crimes. States with weak gun laws also are the source of a greater proportion of guns recovered in crimes shortly after their initial purchase, which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives considers a key indicator of illegal gun trafficking.

Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV) recently completed its own review of gun laws, gun death rates and crime gun export data, ranking states on a scale of 1 to 50 based on the depth and quality of the states' gun regulations. LCAV's analysis reveals that many states with the strongest gun laws have the lowest gun death rates, and vice-versa. This analysis also finds that states with strong laws and a low percentage of household gun ownership tend to have significantly lower gun death rates and crime gun export rates than states that do not fit these criteria. (Crime gun export rates measure the number of traced guns initially purchased in one state but recovered at crime scenes in other states.) While more research must be done to further connect strong gun laws with decreases in gun death and injury, the work of MAIG, LCAV and other public safety-minded organizations points toward tough gun regulation as a cure for gun violence - and a way to keep firepower out of dangerous hands.

Our notoriously weak gun laws are not inevitable: extensive regulation of firearms and ammunition are the norm in most developed - and many developing - nations across the globe. Look no further than the experiences of some of our closest allies to see that strong gun laws work. For example, since Australia and Canada instituted significant gun regulation in the 1990s, both nations have seen gun deaths decline. Not surprisingly, gun death rates in most developed nations are far lower than in the U.S. Our lenient laws and under-funded, defanged law enforcement agencies charged with enforcing our weak laws actually help fuel the gun violence rampant across our borders with Mexico and, to a lesser extent, Canada.

Yet we continue to regress on the critical matter of gun violence prevention, allowing nearly 100,000 Americans to be killed or injured with firearms each year. The confluence of armed violence as a perceived solution to our political, social and economic woes, and lax gun laws that make firearms readily available to anyone in our society, produce a recipe for disaster - as we witnessed in the Fort Hood massacre in 2009. It also provides an easy opportunity for a home-grown terrorist eager to target government, ideological opponents, immigrants, members of certain religions, or any entity or individual that person perceives as a real or imagined threat.

These home-grown terrorists aren't naturally grown, rather they are nurtured into existence by right-wing politicos and pundits eager for cheap political or economic gain. They threaten or commit violence and create an atmosphere of fear that deters debate and stifles action in our political process. Incitement to violence as perpetrated by these pundits is not a virtue of civil society or the individual, and hardly indicative of "reclaiming the civil rights movement" or promoting civil liberties - values these pundits claim to represent. Their vitriol does not fall on deaf ears, but on elements of the public eager to perpetrate the violence, with quick access to the firepower that can cause devastation.

Let's work to ensure that strong, sane gun violence prevention laws become the norm in our country, as they are in other developed nations. We can stifle the violence of the right and, in the process, make the nation safer for all.