By Wendy Ponte
Issue 102, September/October 2000
There are four categories of federal safety regulations that apply to teddy bears made and sold in America. There are zero that apply to guns. -- Pax
"Well that can't be true," said my husband. "You have to have a license to own a gun, for example. Isn't that a federal law?" We had just returned home to Brooklyn from Washington, DC, where we had joined 750,000 other parents, children, and friends in the successful Million Mom March, held on Mother's Day, May 14. My husband is not alone in his confusion about firearms and the law. There is very little clarity about the topic and not much that makes sense. In fact, the average person, even one who has just attended a march to end gun violence, is likely to be surprised when discovering the truth. There is no federal law, for instance, that requires gun owners to have a license, and in many parts of our country, there is no state requirement either. Yet the pain of innocent victims' families is borne by our society every day.
"It's so hard for me to say I will never hold her again, she will never get married or have children," said Veronica McQueen, the mother of six-year-old Kayla, shot in her classroom in Michigan by another six year old in February 2000. Spoken with unbelievable bravery by a woman who had lost her small daughter only last February 29, McQueen's words were mind-numbing--her pain so inconceivable I almost couldn't think about it. I stood in the midst of a weeping crowd and felt thankful that my own four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Adelaide, was sitting safely with her dad and our friends on a blanket under a nearby tree.
I met, face to heart-breaking face, women who had come in groups to the march with a common bond: each had lost a child to a gunshot. Looking into the eyes of these women as they told their stories was an incredible experience.
"My son, Greg, was shot in the chest trying to protect my sister on Labor Day 1996, when he was 24," Debra Lampole of Butler, Pennsylvania, told me during the rally portion of the march. Standing only 3 feet away from her, I could actually feel her tired grief, and, for a moment, I could not push the possibility of losing my own child to violence out of my head. On average, 12 other women like Debra will lose a child today, 12 more tomorrow, the next day, and so on.
There's no question that the Million Mom March's message--to apply common sense to our gun laws and protect our children--was heard. Attended by more than double the expected number and conducted with peace and superb organization, it accomplished its mission easily and elegantly. The spirit in the air on that blessedly clear and comfortable morning was palpable.
The Million Mom March was most remarkable, however, for its success at bringing together people who have many different ideas about what it means to own a gun. Certainly many attendees, such as myself, do not own a gun and have no desire to ever do so. Many others think that gun ownership itself is not a problem and just want that ownership, and the guns themselves, to be more strictly regulated.
As parents with a common goal--keeping our children safe--we have to contend with these differences in beliefs about guns and the very confusing variations in gun laws from state to state, or even, in some places, from town to town. Our biggest roadblock, however, is our own ignorance about what is regulated in the first place. Most of us do not know just how much freedom the gun industry and potential gun owners really have. Here follows a gun primer.
Regulating People, Regulating Products
First, the gun issue is really two separate issues. There is the matter of regulating the people who buy and use guns, and there is the issue of regulating the products--the guns, and the industry which manufactures them. Gun owners are subject to the licensing and registration laws of their state, if it has any such laws at all--35 states do not.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no federally controlled system of licensing or registration for gun owners at this time. The closest thing we have to this is the Brady Law, which requires a potential gun buyer to undergo a background check to ensure they are not a convicted criminal.
The Brady Law has prevented more than 400,000 convicted felons from purchasing a gun, according to Talmage Cooley, the co-executive director of The Movement to End Gun Violence (PAX), a nonprofit organization that is devoted to increasing public awareness of the gun violence problem and one of the organizers of the Million Mom March. "Unfortunately, though, there are all kinds of loopholes in the Brady Law," he says. "One of the biggest problems is gun shows in which your mentally insane and crack-addicted neighbor, the felon, can just pop in and purchase a weapon if he feels like it."
Gun shows and Internet sales represent a significant loophole, because only gun dealers, who must be licensed by federal law, are required to submit background checks. In many states, however, collectors--or any other individuals--may sell guns at a gun show, or to a neighbor, without being required to conduct any kind of check.
In addition, the Brady Law also has other loopholes. In Florida (and perhaps soon in other states) a person with a concealed weapons license isn't required to submit to a background check. In some places, getting such a license requires so few checks that a convicted criminal could technically purchase a firearm quite easily. Federally controlled licensing and registration and mandatory safety training are examples of possible future legislation that would regulate gun owners more strongly.
Kristen Rand, the director of federal policy for the Violence Policy Center, an organization that conducts research on all aspects of firearms use, is one individual who does not favor more legislation aimed at gun owners. While she does think it's important to try to expand the Brady Law so that all gun sales--not just those done through a dealer--are subject to background checks, she believes the focus needs to be more on the gun industry itself.
"We'd argue that the bigger problem is that the gun industry is unregulated. Every other product in America, from automobiles to household items and food, is regulated by some governmental industry. The gun industry is exempt from basic health and safety regulations," Rand says.
In fact, according to Rand, most gun violence is not perpetrated by criminals. Suicides, homicides committed by a friend or family member, and firearms accidents account, by far, for the largest percentage of gun deaths and injuries. None of these users would necessarily be screened out by a licensing system or a background check. "In reality gun violence is a public health problem," she insists. "We know from how we have reduced product-related deaths in other areas, such as household products, that the way to do it is to focus on the industry--change the product and restrict the availability of certain types of products that are shown to present an unreasonable risk of injury."
Talmage Cooley agrees with this. "It's phenomenal that the most dangerous product a consumer can purchase in this country is the only one that is completely exempt from safety regulations," he observes. Manufacturing defects alone account for a large portion of serious injuries and deaths, resulting from the use of firearms. One popular rifle, for example, can go off by itself without the trigger being pulled. Gun dealers aren't required by law to address these defects or to recall their products.
Because there isn't an agency with regulatory authority over the gun industry, it's even possible for manufacturers to find loopholes in the ban on assault weapons. Certain add-ons and accoutrements can make simpler guns as dangerous as assault or fully automatic weapons. Fifty-caliber sniper rifles, originally designed as anti-tank devices, are capable of shooting down an airplane from the sky and can now be purchased for under $1,500.
How has it come to pass that we expect the government to regulate the safety of toasters but not firearms? In the 1970s, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission was created, legislators such as John Dingle, a Michigan Democrat and NRA supporter, refused to support the creation of the agency unless guns were exempt from its authority.
"If there were not the ability for an industry to spend extraordinary amounts of money to affect the positions of legislators on all levels, we wouldn't have the gun violence problem that we have today," says Cooley. "Because with 80 to 90 percent of the people in this country agreeing on all the commonsense legislative measures we support, legislators would be falling all over themselves to be the first person to claim victory for the American people if they weren't catching so much flack and money on the other side from the NRA."
The Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act is one piece of legislation currently being proposed that specifically addresses the lack of regulation over the gun industry. This bill would expand the powers of the secretary of the treasury to regulate the manufacture, distribution, and sale of guns and ammunition along with other firearm-related products.
Until some tough legislation is realized, however, we have to face the following scary statistics:
Every day 12 children die from gun wounds.
Guns kill more kids in the US than all natural causes combined.
A gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill a friend or family member than an intruder.
Taxpayers pay more than $20 billion annually in medical bills, lost productivity, and other costs of gun violence.
And this very frightening fact:
Nearly two out of three children in grades three to six say they could "get a gun if they wanted." Nearly 35 percent say it would take less than an hour.
In our country, we also tend to forget how many aspects of immaturity do not just disappear at the magical ages of 18 and 21.
When I was 19 years old, I came home over a college break to visit my family in Kansas. One afternoon my mother left the house to go grocery shopping, leaving me and my 17-year-old brother, Marty, to supervise our 11-year-old brother, Malcolm.
Marty had recently sorted through a pile of his belongings still boxed up from my family's recent move from Connecticut. Among these items were two World War II rifles that had been hanging for years on the walls of his bedroom back East, found originally at garage sales. A new friend of his had just given him some rifle cartridges.
"Let's put these in the guns and see what happens," he said.
"Those old guns don't work," I argued.
Despite my skepticism, the three of us took the rifles and the ammunition out to the rear balcony, which overlooked my parents' secluded backyard, complete with a brand-new bright green lawn. He loaded one of the guns, aimed it at the lawn, and pulled the trigger.
The rifle shot with a powerful roar and lots of smoke, making adrenaline surge through my body and my youngest brother grab my arm.
The three of us looked at the grass below in total disbelief. The crater which marked the house's new lawn was a good 18 inches wide and several inches deep. We raced below and patched it quickly, transplanting some grass from the lawn's edge so that my parents never knew what we had done.
My story isn't a tragedy, but it could have been. Now that I'm a mom myself, I tremble to think of what we did and how easily it might have gone awry. Who knew my brother had decorated his bedroom for years with lethal weapons? Back then, parents did not discourage children from a routine fascination with guns. These days many parents do discourage their children from such a fascination and may prohibit toy guns of any kind in their homes, even a squirt gun. Unfortunately, though, many do not; in fact, many do the opposite, fostering a mystique and romance about weapons.
When I was 19 and played around with a couple of antique guns, I still thought, on some level, I was immortal. It takes much more living--and the pain that goes with it--to realize what finality really is. It takes having a child of your own and witnessing the deaths of loved ones to comprehend fully how precious the life of a child is. As adults we are responsible for all of those 19 year olds and, especially, the ones much younger. Until they can think for themselves, we have to do whatever we can to make it easier.
Does this mean a loss of freedom and "rights" for them or for the adults who wish to own guns without restriction? "Regulating guns isn't taking away anyone's freedom," says Debra Lampole, the Pennsylvania mother I interviewed at the Million Mom March.
"The guy who shot him took away my son's freedom, took away his life. He had a right to live."
Wendy Ponte writes about family issues and children. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, Bob, and her 4-year-old daughter, Adelaide.