Zack Pelta-Heller is a non-fiction grad student at The New School, who writes regularly for AlterNet and The American Prospect.
Gun violence is the scourge of Philadelphia. Last year, 406 people were murdered in this city. Nearly all the victims were young, poor, and black; and already, the city is on course to exceed this total in 2007. The situation here has become so dire that in late January, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence released a report in Philly entitled "Shady Dealings: Illegal Gun Trafficking from Licensed Gun Dealers." The report focused on over two dozen cases of gun trafficking nationwide, most of incidents coming from urban areas like Philly.
Thanks to the Bush administration and a Republican-controlled Congress that was heavily influenced by the National Rifle Association for the past decade, our federal gun laws have become so shoddy that only gunrunners could be prosecuted in these cases. The dealers who supplied these weapons continue to go unpunished, and cities like Philadelphia have been left to fend for themselves.
The Brady report determined that in the U.S., “5.86 million people were victimized by gun violence from 1996 through 2005.” What’s worse, between 2004 and 2005, gun crime jumped nearly 50 percent. While these numbers are staggering, there is an explanation for this recent surge. The Brady Law, first passed by Congress in 1993, mandated criminal background checks on all gun sales by licensed dealers. That law, coupled with additional initiatives from the Clinton administration, tightened licensing requirements for gun dealers, hindered gun trafficking, and ultimately blocked the sale of 1.4 million firearms (according to the U.S. Department of Justice). The last Congress, however, allowed the ban in the Brady Law on semiautomatic assault weapons to expire in September 2004.
The 109th Congress made its allegiance to the gun lobby abundantly clear. Rather than renew the ban on assault weapons Congress instead passed the Tiahrt Amendment, which made it illegal to trace the origins of guns in crime scenes. Rather than weed out individual gun dealers (Shady Dealings concluded that eight dealers in Philadelphia distribute 50 percent of “crime guns,” and found similar results in other cities), Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, further limiting the liability of gun dealers and manufacturers. Although the 109th Congress is history, the question remains whether the 110th will look at gun control any differently with the Democrats in charge.
“A lot of new members of Congress are middle of the road when it comes to issues like guns,” explained George Burke, press secretary for Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y.. “Our best chance for any gun laws will be to strengthen the ones we already have on the books and pass common sense legislation.”
McCarthy began lobbying for gun control in 1993, when her husband was killed and her son was wounded during Colin Ferguson’s shooting rampage on the Long Island Rail Road. Now McCarthy is pushing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Act, which she introduced last month when the new Congress convened. She is also strongly in favor of strengthening Brady background checks at gun shows, thereby closing the so-called “gun show loophole.”
Ironically, the NICS Improvement Act was co-sponsored by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who has long been a staunch supporter of the NRA, and closing the gun show loophole has bipartisan support. Burke views the broad backing for these bills as part of the reframing of the gun control issue that has occurred since the Brady Law expired. “I don’t think there’s a reasonable gun owner out there,” Burke said, “who would want criminals to buy guns.” By shifting the debate from seeking to ban firearms outright to getting them out of the hands of criminals, gun control proponents have rendered the NRA’s standby constitutional objection completely irrelevant.
With moderate Democrats in power though, gun control no longer falls strictly into the Republican/Democrat divide. “This is becoming more of a rural versus urban issue,” Brady Campaign spokesman Zack Ragbourn told me. In addition to closing the gun show loophole, the top federal legislative priority for the Brady Campaign is ensuring that crime-gun trace data is available to the police. Ragbourn believes there is a growing awareness throughout this country of the need to strengthen gun control laws against criminals and dealers alike. “It would be really tough to point to a pro-gun control candidate who put that issue front and center in the last election and lost,” he claimed.
Back in the Philadelphia area, one candidate who was an outspoken advocate of gun control during his campaign was Joe Sestak. Last October, Sestak received the Brady Campaign’s endorsement during a rally in front of Lou’s Loans (or “Lethal Lou’s,” as it’s more commonly known), one of the dealers cited in Shady Dealings. “We’re going to protect fundamental rights to guns for sports and traditions,” Sestak said by phone, “but I refuse to put special interest groups ahead of gun dealers.” Sestak’s 7th Congressional district includes the suburbs of Philadelphia where gun violence isn’t a direct problem, but it’s certainly on the minds of his constituents.
In Philadelphia proper, however, Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., is far more skeptical. “The realities of the Bush White House are that we won’t be passing specific gun legislation.” While Fattah feels that the gun lobby will have a hard time advancing its agenda with the new Congress, he’s more interested in tackling gun violence at the local level—using tip hotlines and gun buyback programs in exchange for groceries—than trying to pass sweeping Federal legislation.
Fattah agrees guns are a wedge issue within both parties, and that they’re regarded in urban areas like his district as menacing, whereas in the suburbs they are a way of life. He mentioned a car dealership in a Philly suburb that started offering a free shotgun to anyone who purchased a pickup or SUV. This happened last fall, shortly after the Amish school shooting occurred not far from the dealership. “Can you imagine a car dealership in Philly offering that kind of deal?” he asked incredulously. “They’d be run out of town on a rail.” Yet with all the gun violence and illegal trafficking going on in Philly right now, a car dealership offering free firearms might be like all the other gun dealers in this city—above the law.