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Posted 4/9/24


When it comes to gun laws, “Red” and “Blue” remain in the driver’s seat


     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  Vice-President Kamala Harris’ recent visit was an inevitable heart-churner. Scheduled for demolition, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman High School remains mostly as it was in February 2018 when a former student barged in and opened fire with an AR-15, murdering fourteen students and three employees and wounding more than a dozen others.

     Speaking before an audience that included the victims’ families, Ms. Harris announced a new Federal initiative, the “National Extreme Risk Protection Order Resource Center.”  Established in partnership with the Bloomberg School of Public Health, it will train law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, clinicians and other service providers in the proper use of extreme risk protection orders, i.e. “Red Flag” laws, which authorize the pre-emptive seizure of firearms from dangerous persons. Such as Nikolas Cruz, the deeply-troubled nineteen-year old shooter who had been expelled from Marjory Stoneman “for behavioral reasons” in the year preceding the massacre.

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     “Ban the Damned Things!” recounts Cruz’s ominous and extensive online history. Two years before his unspeakable deed, he posted photos of self-inflicted cuts and declared his intention to buy a gun. That led to a mental health referral. But a counselor cleared him, and the online ranting continued. Indeed, his intentions became so explicit (i.e., “Im going to be a professional school shooter”) that an Internet user warned the FBI about Cruz a mere month before the massacre. But nothing happened.

     At the time, Florida lacked a “Red Flag” law. That quickly changed. Still, the version it adopted wasn’t a complete solution. It requires that law enforcement officers (not simply citizens or family members) file a petition in court, and a hearing and judicial order are required before guns can be seized. No shortcuts are permitted. In 2019 a Lakeland woman was arrested for burglary when she tried to turn in her estranged husband’s guns to police. He was in jail after purposely ramming her car while on the road, and she feared for her life.

     Marjory Stoneman led to another tightening. Cruz legally bought his AR-15 from a dealer when he turned eighteen, the Federal minimum. So Florida raised the minimum age to buy long guns to twenty-one. But this January, by an “11-5 party-line vote” (with “Reds” in the majority), the criminal justice committee of Florida’s House chamber sent forward a measure that would restore the ability of eighteen-year olds to buy long guns. According to Rep. Bobby Payne (R-Palatka), doing so is “very important in my rural area. We do a lot of bird hunting.”

     That reset is still pending. But what Florida’s political leaders are yet to do is define certain semi-automatic firearms like Cruz’s AR-15 as simply being too lethal. Guns labeled as “assault weapons” are presently banned in only ten States – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Washington. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), as of March 2024 each of these States is one of sixteen that are under complete control of the Democratic Party, meaning that both legislative Houses and the Governor are “Blue.”  Republicans, in turn, exercise full control over twenty-three States. None of these “Red” states has an assault weapons law. Not one.

     A telling partisan split extends well beyond assault weapons. Everytown For Gun Safety recently released its 2024 State gun-law-strength rankings. Their system assigns 1 to the State with the strongest overall gun laws, and 50 to the State with the weakest. We turned it around, creating a scale of gun law strength that ranges from 1-50, with 50 the strongest.

States GLSM

     Colored dots – red for Republicans, blue for Democrats – represent the 39 States that are fully under control of a single party. According to the scattergram and table, there’s a strong relationship between NCSL party composition, Everytown gun law strength rankings and CDC 2021 firearm mortality death rates (it includes all deaths by gunfire, including crimes, accidents and suicides). Check the table. Mean gun law strength for “Blue” States is three times that of “Red” States, and the mean death rate is only half in magnitude. Notice how neatly the “Reds” and “Blues” cluster in the scattergram, with the “Reds” displaying consistently lower gun law strength scores and higher death rates than the “Blues”. Indeed, their gun law strength scores overlap only once, in the middle. To more precisely express the relationship between gun law strength and gun death rate we computed the r (correlation) statistic. It ranges from zero, meaning no relationship between variables, to plus or minus 1, meaning a perfect association. For this group of 39 States, gun law strength and gun death rate have a robust r of -.63. As one goes up or down, the other consistently follows, but in the opposite direction.

     “Policing Can’t Fix What Really Ails”, our recent exploration of the role of poverty in crime, assessed relationships between poverty, household firearms ownership, violent crime, homicide and gun deaths. These scattergrams depict the results of a 50-State analysis which examines the role of Party composition (measured by proportion of State legislators who are Democrats) as a potential driving force:

States GLS4M

  • Top left graph: Gun law strength and gun death rates have a robust r of -.62, virtually identical to what we computed for the 39-State sample. As one factor increases, the other decreases, and in close sync.
  • Top right graph: At r= .70, the proportion of households with guns exhibits a strong relationship with gun deaths. Since we’re considering all manner of gun deaths, including accidents and suicides, that’s no surprise.
  • Bottom left graph: To assess the potential influence of political parties on gun law strength, NCSL data was used to determine each State’s proportion of “Blue” legislators. Results are consistent with what we found for the 39-State sample. Political party and gun law strength share a strong relationship, producing an r of  .78. That’s a “positive” relationship, meaning the variables go up and down together.
  • Bottom right graph: An equally robust correlation, in the “negative” direction, characterizes the relationship between party preference and household gun ownership. As percent “Blues” goes up, gun ownership goes down, and in very close sync.

     This matrix displays all the relationships:

States matrixM

Check out the bottom row. Gun death rates substantially increase with gun ownership (positive relationship) but markedly decline as percent Democrat and gun law strength increase (negative relationship). “Reds” support gun ownership and oppose gun lawmaking. And here’s how we figure things play out in the “real world”:

States party prefM

     Given a reluctance, even in “Blue” places, to impose truly strict controls, guns have become ubiquitous throughout the land. According to NBC News’ latest poll, 52 percent of registered voters – the highest proportion ever – have at least one gun at home. Firearms ownership was reported by 66 percent of “Reds”, 45 percent of Indies and 41 percent of “Blues”.

     While full-blooded “Red” States are more deeply affected by gun violence, they don’t suffer alone. Consider Virginia. Traditionally split down the middle politics-wise, it presently has two-member Democratic majorities in its State House and Senate. But Governor Glenn Youngkin is a “Red.” So he recently vetoed a host of gun control measures, including an assault-weapons ban, that had squeaked through on Party-line votes. He even turned away a prohibition on guns on college campuses that had been inspired by a November, 2022 shooting which took the lives of three University of Virginia students on a chartered bus. However, Gov. Youngkin did sign a bill requiring schools to remind parents of their responsibility to safely store guns. That tepidly-worded measure followed on a recent incident in which a six-year old first-grader used an unsecured gun to shoot his teacher. (His mother just pled guilty to child neglect.)

     Switch to deep-Blue. Consider the recent tragedy in California, where a 10-year old used a gun he “stole” from his father’s car to shoot and kill another child. And the 66-year old upstate New York homeowner who opened fire on vehicles that (mistakenly) drove up his driveway, killing one of the occupants. He just drew 25-to-life. (For many more such examples scroll through the “Updates” sections of our essays in Gun Control 2023.)

    Clashing ideologies aside, firearms ownership remains commonplace throughout the land. “Reds” argue that firearms are vital for protection, and many “Blues” agree. It turns out that their supposedly more “stringent” gun laws are riddled with exceptions. Such as California’s assault weapons “ban”, which allows semi-automatic rifles that, other than for a ten-round limit, are the functional equivalents of the highly lethal AR-15.

     So how are the risks of violence dispersed? These graphs report mean State crime rates from the UCR, mean firearms mortality and suicide data from the CDC, and State poverty data from the Census:

States comparoM

“Red” States suffer from higher homicide, aggravated assault and burglary rates, while “Blue” States have higher robbery rates. Residents of “Red” States seem at somewhat higher risk of crime, but the picture is mixed. What’s perfectly clear is that “Red” States contend with substantially higher rates of firearms death and firearms suicide. Given their elevated rates of gun ownership, that would seem all-too predictable.

     However, their residents’ increased risk of death isn’t something that seemingly concerns “Red” politicians. Say, Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb (his State is eleventh “Reddest”, with a legislature under full “Red” control). Gary, one of the State’s few “Blue” places, had a long-running lawsuit against the gun industry, which it blamed for fomenting violence. A judge recently gave it some steam. So legislators sent on, and Governor Holcomb quickly signed, a bill that prohibits cities from doing such things. And its effect is retroactive. Sorry, Gary!

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     Of course, the effects of partisanship go well beyond the gun debate. As we discussed in “Judicial Detachment: Myth or Reality?” ideological notions have long shaped key rulings by our vaunted Supreme Court. (Its “Reds” are presently in the driver’s seat with a one-vote advantage.) Bottom line: when it comes to critical public issues, informed, objective analysis is often elbowed aside by the unholy influences of political ideology, both “Red” and “Blue”. That’s what is truly scary.

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Gun Massacres special topic

Ideology Trumps Reason   Does Legal Pot Drive Violence?   Fearful, Angry, Fuzzy-Headed. And Armed

“Legal” Gun Buyers Can be a Problem   Loopholes are (Still) Lethal   Policing Can’t Fix What Really Ails

Judicial Detachment: Myth or Reality?     Cops v. Assault Weapons     Ban the Damned Things!

Red Flag at Half-Mast (I)

Posted 2/28/24


Fueled by assault rifles, “senseless” murders plague the land

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. As our more “senior” readers know, the “problem” we’re appropriating for our own, selfish purposes reared its ugly head fifty-four years ago. On April 14, 1970, an American mission to the moon was aborted mid-flight when an oxygen tank blew up. Happily, the orbiter landed safely (on Earth) and no one got hurt.

     Like all such missions, Apollo 13 launched from Florida’s Cape Kennedy. It then came under the control of “Mission Control” at Johnson Space Center, a vast “$1.5 billion complex” near downtown Houston. That’s Houston, Texas. Our government’s most sophisticated, science-based enterprise is based in a decidedly “Red” State. Texas also happens to be a “Stand Your Ground” State. Meaning, among other things, that it encourages private gun ownership. And, apparently, gun use. For example, its denizens are under no obligation to retreat before using force, including deadly force, in self-defense (Texas Penal Code sec. 9.31e).

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays

     Our focus here, though, isn’t on simple errors in judgment, no matter how tragic their consequences. After all, even the best-intentioned humans (and here we include most cops) occasionally fall prey to the chaos and uncertainty that suffuse everyday life. It’s about “senseless” behavior, meaning without any rational basis. And there are few better examples than what happened in Houston during the afternoon hours of Sunday, February 11. That’s when a local resident, 36-year old Genesse Ivonne Moreno, burst into a church between services. Accompanied by her 7-year old son, Moreno was attired in a trench coat and carried two rifles, a .22 caliber weapon and an AR-15. She quickly opened fire with the latter in a hallway. Two off-duty police officers working security promptly fired back, killing her. During the exchange Moreno’s son was critically hurt, and a middle-aged parishioner sustained non-life threatening wounds to his leg. (Just whose bullets struck them is yet to be revealed.)

     What drove Moreno to act as she did? Her rifle bore a “Palestine” sticker, and she had reportedly made “anti-Semitic” writings. But the church was a Christian congregation. Motives aside, what is known paints a highly disturbing picture of a highly disturbed soul. While Moreno identified as a woman, she had a substantial criminal record in Houston under a male alias. Here’s a summary from our inquiry of the Harris County Court:

     Moreno supposedly purchased the AR-15 in December 2023. How, and from whom, hasn’t been revealed. She has no known felony convictions, which would have barred her from buying a gun from a  dealer. Family members and police said that Moreno suffered from long-standing mental problems; police officers placed her under “emergency mental detention” in 2016. However, Texas doesn’t have a “Red Flag” law,  so there was no ready way to keep her from buying a gun in a store. Neither does it require background checks for gun transfers between private parties. So Moreno could have easily acquired a firearm even if her mental problems were of record.

     Moreno hasn’t been the Lone Star State’s only “senseless” killer. Consider the May 6, 2023 massacre in Allen, a Dallas exurb. Attired in tactical gear and wearing an “RWDS” (Right-Wing Death Squad) patch on his chest, Mauricio Garcia, 36, jumped out of his car and began “indiscriminately” firing an AR-15 in the parking lot of a large mall. He then charged into a building and continued the fusillade. Garcia killed eight and wounded seven before a security guard shot him dead.

     Garcia (photo from OK.ru) brought along an arsenal. In addition to the AR-15 he carried two handguns on his person and had five more guns in his car. All were legally bought. Garcia, a security guard, had a clean criminal record. But there was a “glitch”. Garcia enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was eighteen. But only three months later concerns about his mental health and an “adjustment disorder” led to his discharge. Unfortunately, the Army didn’t pass that on to the FBI, which runs the nation’s “Insta-Check” gun purchase system. So he remained free to buy guns from retail dealers to his wicked heart’s delight.

     We’re not done with Texas. Four days preceding Garcia’s foul deed a tactical unit comprised of Feds and State troopers arrested Francisco Oropeza in the small town of Cut and Shoot, about 40 miles north of Houston. Oropeza was on the run after murdering four adults and a 9-year old in the nearby town of Cleveland, where he lived, because they had the temerity to demand that he stop shooting his AR-15 in his yard. One of his victims had just called 9-1-1 about his gunfire. And this wasn’t the first time.

     Oropeza was an illegal immigrant with four prior deportations. That’s important to know because it legally excluded him from having guns. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. Sadly, that’s already been imposed.

     “We can't get inside his head. We just don't have any clue as to why he did what he did.” Joliet Police Chief Bill Evans’s comments reflect the perplexing nature of the January 21, 2024 spree by our fourth killer, twenty-three year old Romeo Nance. He was ultimately cornered – and committed suicide – in Texas. But his appalling handiwork took place in Joliet, Illinois, the community where he grew up. And its toll was grim. Nance murdered his mother, three sisters, a brother, and an uncle and aunt. While fleeing he also shot and killed a 28-year old pedestrian carrying groceries and wounded a middle-aged man whom he happened to encounter.

     Nance’s explosive temper was well known to police, who were frequently summoned to his residence.  Leaving out numerous traffic infractions, here’s a summary of his adult criminal record from the Will County Court:

     Soon after turning eighteen Nance was arrested for a robbery that involved “pressing a knife against [his victim’s] chest”. He got a break, and the case was settled with his plea to a misdemeanor marijuana charge. Nance completed a probationary term, by all appearances successfully. But his conduct eventually tanked. In January 2023 he shot at a female motorist during a traffic encounter. Police seized an unlicensed handgun and “two cartons of ammunition” from his backpack. Nance went on to assault an officer and soon collected additional charges.

     Nance perpetrated his massacre using an “AR-15 style” rifle that was recovered from his car. He also used a handgun. How he obtained these weapons hasn’t been revealed. His previous tangles made him ineligible to receive an Illinois firearm owner’s ID card, which the State requires of all gun owners. So he probably acquired his guns through private transactions.

     Shift to Minnesota. Prohibited or not, emotionally-troubled men – and it’s almost always a male – find it easy to get high-powered firearms. On February 18, 2024, after a prolonged negotiation session during which he denied being armed, Shannon Gooden (Facebook photo on left) unleashed a barrage of “more than 100” rifle rounds, killing two Burnsville police officers and a paramedic who had responded to a call about a sexual assault. Despite a 2007 felony assault conviction and a judge’s 2020 refusal to reinstate his gun rights, Gooden had multiple firearms and a copious amount of ammunition. He committed suicide

     Switch to Maine. U.S. Army reservist Robert Card’s mounting “anger and paranoia” deeply troubled an Army chum. So much so, that in September 2023 he warned their superior that Card was going “to snap and do a mass shooting.” And on October 25 that’s exactly what he did, unleashing back-to-back barrages in a Lewiston bowling alley and a restaurant (surveillance photo on right) that killed eighteen persons and injured thirteen. Card had a troubled mental history. It included a two-week 2023 stint in an Army psychiatric ward that followed his mentions of “hearing voices” about “hurting other soldiers”. But the Army, which barred him from handling guns, apparently didn’t consider his treatment to be a mental “commitment” that required it inform the Insta-Check system. Ergo, Card remained able to buy guns to his wicked heart’s delight. Including the Ruger SFAR semi-auto rifle he used in the massacre. And yes, he bought it in a gun store. Ten days earlier. Card committed suicide as police closed in.

     We began our post by declaring a focus on “senselessness”. Alas, irrational behavior is not uncommon. And in our gun-infused society, it all-too-often leads to gunplay. Most, though, involves handguns. As we pointed out in “Going Ballistic,” their lethality is far, far outstripped by the killing power of the military-style rifles that have become immensely popular among enthusiasts. And mass murderers. Let’s self-plagiarize from our 2015 op-ed  in the Washington Post:

    One assumes that assault rifles were picked on [by the Federal ban] because they are particularly lethal. Key attributes that make them so include accuracy at range, rapid-fire capability and, most importantly, fearsome ballistics. In their most common calibers – 7.62 and .223 – these weapons discharge bullets whose extreme energy and velocity readily pierce protective garments commonly worn by police, opening cavities in flesh many times the diameter of the projectile and causing devastating wounds.

     All this is well known to law enforcement. Between 2010-2019 (the last year with complete LEOKA data) 471 law enforcement officers were feloniously slain by gunfire. Of these, 339 were wearing body armor. And 21 were slain by rounds that penetrated their armor. This graph depicts the most frequent culprits, gun-wise:

     Ballistics definitely “count”. According to a March 2023 article in the Texas Tribune, that vulnerability was apparently very much on the minds of the officers who responded to the May 2022 massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. During “previously unreleased interviews” they said they backed off and waited for SWAT because they lacked the weapons and protective gear to confront the shooter’s “battle rifle”. Here’s its image when seized:

Several non-SWAT officers did try to make a prompt approach. As they went down the hallway the gunman opened fire through a door. Two officers got grazed:

    The gunman had an AR-15…Its bullets flew toward the officers at three times the speed of sound and could have pierced their body armor like a hole punch through paper. They grazed two officers in the head, and the group retreated.

According to a police sergeant, “You knew that it was definitely an AR. There was no way of going in.”

     When it came time to review the police response, political correctness took hold. Official assessments  (click here for DOJ’s report) repeatedly blasted the (again, non-SWAT) cops for not promptly charging in . No mention was made of the exceptionally lethal nature of Ramos’ gun, whose projectiles would readily defeat “ordinary” ballistic vests commonly worn on patrol. Of course, Texas is a place that embraces guns. Suggesting that so-called “assault rifles” are simply too lethal would have stirred a hornet’s nest. Far better (and safer) to blame it on the cops, and only the cops.

     Then came the Allen massacre. Attention turned to a Texas House bill, backed by the families of Uvalde’s victims, that would have increased the minimum age for buying semi-auto rifles from 18 to 21  (Uvalde’s gunman was 18 when he bought his two AR-15 style rifles from a dealer.) That seems hardly controversial. Even so, gunplay had abated, and the proposal quickly died in committee. Really, in Texas it simply can't be about the gun. Here’s what the legal counsel for Texas Gun Rights told the Washington Post about the massacre in Cleveland, Texas:

    It’s a tragedy but we need to get away from blaming guns which only answers the question of how and start asking the question why these shootings take place, why people feel the need to settle differences with violence and murder…

But didn’t Francisco Oropeza’s AR-15 style weapon pose a special threat? Absolutely not, the lawyer replied. Its presence was “meaningless.” After all, Oropeza “could have killed those people just as easily with a handgun.”

     In a recent interview, ATF Director Steven Dettelbach suggested that the unending stream of mass killings may be numbing Americans to the effects of gun violence. At a meet with families of the Lewiston massacre, he emphasized that speaking out was crucial. “Your voices are very important...It really makes a difference.” Dettelbach later told reporters that it was “too easy” for unstable persons to get firearms.

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     As a (long retired) ATF agent, we second the current boss’s views. Still, guns have suffused the land. They’re so easy to acquire from private sources that trying to control who gets them can seem hopeless. Perhaps a highly focused approach on the most lethal weapons – say, an outright prohibition on assault rifles – could help. After all, these instruments of war weren't in play when they  penned the Second Amendment. Indeed, we urged that “solution” six years ago in “Ban the Damned Things!” Mind you, it would have to be a real ban, sans the exceptions and workarounds that characterize so-called “assault weapons bans” in so-called “strong law” States like our own California.

     But for that, check out “A Ban in Name Only”. Meanwhile, has anything here resonated? If so, pass it on!

UPDATES (scroll)

3/18/24  Maine has a “Yellow Flag” law that allows authorities to request that a judge order dangerous persons to give up their guns. According to a commission investigating the October 2023 massacre in a Lewiston bowling alley, where eighteen were shot dead, it could have been applied to its perpetrator, Army reservist Robert Card, well in advance. But a deputy who knew five weeks earlier that Card was in a “mental health crisis” and had threatened to commit a mass shooting did...nothing.

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Home   Top   Permalink     Print/Save     Feedback     


Gun Massacres special topic

“Legal” Gun Buyers Can be a Problem     Fearful, Angry, Fuzzy-Headed. And Armed.

Are We Helpless to Prevent Massacres?     An American Tragedy     Loopholes Are (Still) Lethal

Cops v. Assault Weapons     Going Ballistic     Red Flag at Half-Mast (I)  (II)     Ban the Damned Things!

A “Ban” in Name Only     A Stitch in Time 

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