Category Archives: Firearms

Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition battles the NRA and other Gun Rights Groups Over Gun Control Legislation

On Thursday, June 28, 2007 the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to renew the Tiahrt Amendment, a provision that has been attached to U.S. Departments of Justice spending bills each year since 2003. By taking this action, the Senate rejected the recommendations of public health advocates and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a new coalition of more than 200 Mayors who seek to reduce gun violence This year, the amendment further restricts law enforcement agencies and the public from gaining access to gun trace data The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) collects data that tracks the movement of a gun from the time of its first retail sale. Previously available under the Freedom of Information Act, the Tiahrt Amendment, if passed by Congress and signed by the President, would now bar the ATF from providing database information to outside agencies unless prosecutor or law enforcement agency certifies that it will be used solely in conjunction with a specific criminal investigation or prosecution.

By withholding aggregate gun trace information, the proposed amendment would prevent law enforcement agencies and public health officials from wider investigations into the sources of illegal guns. In practice, the amendment would allow local law enforcement agencies to obtain information from the ATF on a specific gun used in a prior crime but not to investigate whether the original source of the guns has also provided other guns used in other crimes. The current version was sponsored by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) and is considered more restrictive than the original version originally sponsored by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KA). Shelby’s version stipulates that gun trace data used by a police officer for purposes broader than a specific criminal investigation, such as identifying trafficking patterns, could bring up to five years in prison.

The story of the Tiahrt Amendment illustrates how the gun industry and its supporters use the legislative process to achieve policy objectives that endanger public safety, jeopardize law enforcement, and thwart local efforts to reduce gun violence.

The Amendment has many supporters, including the National Shooting and Sports Foundation (NSSF) – the industry’s trade association – and the National Rifle Association (NRA), which lobbied forcefully in favor of the amendment. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Representative Tiahrt, who introduced the legislation, has received $68,000 in campaign contributions from advocates of gun rights. In 2006, pro- gun groups contributed $1,054,775 to Congressional campaigns, 87% to Republicans. The sponsor of this year’s Tiahrt amendment, Senator Richard Shelby, had more cash in his Senate campaign treasury at the end of 2006 – almost $12 million – than any other Senator, including presidential candidate Hilary Rodham Clinton of New York. Big business groups were the primary source of contributions.

While the gun industry and its supporters have long opposed public oversight of their retail practices, this year some new groups joined the fight to reduce gun violence by seeking new tools to investigate illegal gun sales. One of the leaders in this effort is the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, a bipartisan coalition that now includes 225 members from more than 40 states. In April 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino invited 15 mayors to Bloomberg’s New York estate to discuss gun violence. There, they drafted a statement of principles that has now been signed by all members. The U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National Conference of Black Mayors have also endorsed the principles.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other law enforcement organizations argue that the Tiahrt Amendment, limits the ability of local police departments to fight crime by tracking down the source of illegal guns in their communities. Mayors Against Illegal Guns waged a media campaign to urge repeal of the amendment. In one television message, Patricia Tucker, the widow of a North Carolina sheriff who was shot in the face by a teenager on probation for an earlier offence, tearfully urged television viewers to “ask Congress to protect police officers, and not criminals”. Her husband’s assailant was found to have bought a shotgun from a dealer who allegedly should have refused the sale.

The NRA targeted members of the coalition, encouraging their members to send letters their local mayor urging reconsideration of membership in the Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The NSSF also sent letters to the Mayors explaining why the organization supported the reauthorization of the Tiahrt Amendment. Under such pressure, mayors from four cities – Anchorage, Alaska, Rio Rancho, New Mexico, Idaho Falls, Iowa and Williamsport, PA – have left the coalition. The NRA has also pressured local television affiliates in several states not to air television ads created by Mayors Against Illegal Guns. The NRA argued that the group distorted facts in their ads and therefore stations had a responsibility to pull them, given licensing agreements which stipulate that television stations are responsible for the truthfulness of the issue advertising they air. While two Kansas affiliates pulled the ads, another station in Youngstown, Ohio kept the ad on the air.

Though mayors around the country have taken heat for their participation in Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Mayor Bloomberg became the poster boy for the NRA’s counter campaign and is often painted as a “vigilante,” and an “elitist.” NRA Executive Director Chris Cox likened Mayor Bloomberg’s gun control work to totalitarianism. In one NRA publication, Bloomberg was labeled a “billionaire, Boston-grown evangelist for the nanny state – beholden to nothing except his own ambitions.” In April, the cover of NRA Magazine, America’s 1st Freedom, depicted Bloomberg as a sinister octopus with the headline “Tentacles!” James Norell, editor of the magazine stated, “Bloomberg’s tentacles reach throughout the country to foist N.Y.C.-style gun control on you, your friends and neighbors.”

Gun supporters have been particularly upset about New York City’s out of state sting operations. In 2006, New York City undercover agents traveled to five states – Georgia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Ohio – to target 43 gun dealers who were suspected of illegal gun sales. In such operations, investigators attempt to make “straw purchases” in which an individual fills out legal forms and buys a gun for another individual who cannot legally purchase one. Straw purchases are prohibited by federal law and are often used by convicted felons who cannot legally own firearms. Based on these sting operations, New York City brought lawsuits against 27 gun dealers. To date, 12 have settled and, agreed to monitoring of their sales by a court-appointed master.

In justifying these tactics, Mayor Bloomberg has noted that out of state guns also account for 60% of New York City homicides. Bloomberg and San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom make the case that current federal laws that prohibit illegal guns sales don’t go far enough since they don’t allow law enforcement agencies to determine who is selling the illegal guns to begin with. After attending the funerals of eight New York City police officers killed with illegal firearms in June alone, Mayor Bloomberg argued that repealing the Tiahrt Amendment is a step in that direction. Speaking at the organization’s National Summit in Washington, DC in January, Bloomberg declared, “Mayors are the ones who see first hand the death and devastation caused by illegal guns in the hands of criminals. This is not a question of ideologies of a referendum on the Second Amendment; it’s about saving lives.” After the Senate’s 19-10 decision in late June, Bloomberg stated that the vote “showed Congress at its most craven, buckling to pressure from the gun lobby to protect those who traffic in illegal guns.”

At both the national and state levels, Mayors Menino and Bloomberg are leading the way for stronger gun control measures. Menino created the Strategic Crime Council, a broad-based approach to approaching gun violence, lead the passage of the Gang Bill and Witness Protection Bill, and filed state legislation to require that all guns sold in Massachusetts use micro-stamping technology which links shell casings to the guns which fire them.

Members of the House Appropriations Council will vote on a version of the Tiahrt Amendment in mid July. NSSF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Lawrence G. Keane stated, “As the Shelby amendment works its way through the legislative process, NSSF will look forward to educating lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives on the importance of putting public safety and the lives of law enforcement ahead of gun control politics.” National Rifle Association spokesman Andrew Arulanandam believes that efforts to defeat the amendment are have little hope and argues that gun control has waning support in Washington. Kristen Rand, legislative director for the Violence Policy Center (VPC) in Washington urged citizens who wanted to reduce gun violence to support Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “Keeping gun trace data secret,” she said, “puts the whims of the gun industry ahead of the needs of local officials and law enforcement who are desperate for information that will help them fight illegal gun trafficking.”

While Mayors Against Illegal Guns may not succeed in blocking the Tiahrt Amendment this year, they have mobilized public support and media attention and demonstrated the power of local governments to confront an industry and its supporters who have consistently opposed efforts to reduce America’s burden of gun deaths.

Photo Credit:

All photos: Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition

Public Health Advocacy on Tobacco and Guns Down Under and Beyond – An Interview with Simon Chapman

Simon Chapman is Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney in Australia. He has studied and participated in public health advocacy on tobacco, guns, and other issues. He is a sociologist who wrote his PhD dissertation on the semiotics of cigarette advertising, and has written 10 books and major government reports and published more than 160 papers in peer- reviewed journals. His main research interests are in tobacco control, media discourses on health and illness, and risk communication. He teaches courses in Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control in the University of Sydney’s MPH program. He also serves as editor of Tobacco Control and was a key member of the Coalition for Gun Control that won the 1996 Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s community Human Rights award. His new book, Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco: Making Smoking History will be released this September by Blackwell Press. A few months ago, Corporations and Health Watch founder Nicholas Freudenberg interviewed Chapman in his Sydney office. We publish here excerpts of that interview.

CHW: Can you tell me your perspective on the similarities and differences in the tobacco control effort in Australia and the United States, and what’s special about how these conflicts have played out here in Australia?

Chapman: What is similar is that both Australia and the United States are very robust democracies where freedom of expression, criticism of the government, criticism of the corporate sector … all of those issues are not problematic. Whereas in places like China or Vietnam, talking about advocacy is like talking Esperanto because the notion that you could ever make an argument against government or even against corporations is pretty much unheard of. So that is the major similarity.

In Australia, in tobacco control, we have not had the problem that you’ve got in the States with the First Amendment and the issue of free speech being taken to include commercial free speech. Very early on in Australia, arguments were put forward about banning tobacco advertising and promotion, and there was never any serious impediment to that which was constitutionally based or, indeed, based in values that would suggest that corporations could somehow not be silenced in their exercise of free speech. The tobacco industry, of course, fought very hard against any restrictions, along the lines of trying to play games about getting us to reach an impossible level of evidence about cause and effect of advertising and smoking. But those arguments petered out and in the early 1990s we got rid of all tobacco advertisements in Australia. Today you can’t see any advertising anywhere except for very limited point of sale promotion inside tobacconists.

CHW: Are there other cultural or political differences that influence attitudes towards tobacco?

Chapman: Another difference between the States and Australia in terms of tobacco control is concern about what I would characterize as very trivial erosions of personal freedom like having to wear seat belts or a motorcycle crash helmet. Here in Australia, there has not been any significant civil libertarian resistance, whereas I’m very aware that in those two areas there has been conflict in the States. But we haven’t had anything like that, so arguments in Australia about, for example, rules about designating places where we couldn’t smoke were pretty well accepted by the population. The idea that it was fair and just that the government should intervene with laws when somebody was harming your health through second hand smoke was reasonable. So the problem always became the vested interest groups, mainly the tobacco industry, but more importantly, third parties acting on their behalf. This included principally the hospitality industry and the hotel industry, and what we call “clubs”, places where members can gamble, smoke and drink. Australia has successfully imposed restrictions on smoking in these places.

CHW: I know you have also worked on the issue of reducing gun violence in Australia. How does your experience here compare to the US?

Chapman: Well, again, we have nothing like the Second Amendment, or a right to bear arms. In 1996, we had a horrendous civilian massacre in Port Arthur, a historic tourist site in Tasmania, where a man ran amok with military style semi-automatic weapons and killed 35 people.

That was a tipping point for a lot of gun control advocacy that erupted in the decade leading up to that. I describe these experiences in my 1998 book Over our dead bodies: Port Arthur and Australia’s fight for gun control. ((Read the British Medical Journal review) In that book, I make the case that in health care we have disaster plans where every working hospital is prepared for a major industrial explosion or an aircraft crash or something like that. In public health we also ought to have disaster plans because sometimes big public health incidents, like a gun massacre, can trigger (sorry about the bad pun) major reconsiderations in public health law, and that was certainly what happened after Port Arthur.

CHW: By disaster plans, you mean a plan to move advocacy forward if there’s a window for policy change?

Chapman: That’s right. It opens a window of opportunity where a major disaster can suddenly concentrate decades of advocacy. All of a sudden, communities start using the arguments that you’ve been seeding for years and years, leading to a huge avalanche of public outrage that something should be done now. After the Port Arthur massacre, we found terms and phrases that we’d been using for years suddenly being repeated by politicians, police officers, and citizens in ways that showed the groundwork for advocacy comes home to roost when public concern is fired up by these incidents.

CHW: Have these same dynamics played out in tobacco control?

Chapman: With tobacco, the major challenge is that if you don’t do something about control today and you postpone it for weeks, months, or even years, there is not the obvious temporal association between something not having been done and the disease incidence down the road. It’s the old difference between statistical victims and what’s been referred to as the rule of rescue, where you’ve got identifiable, named individuals with acute health problems, saying the government should be providing this new cancer drug for me or reducing waiting lists in public hospitals. Whereas, with chronic disease, of which tobacco control is a great example, you can run the same arguments about harm reduction or controlling the tobacco industry for years and years. It’s really only when windows of opportunity open – and they include things like political charismatic leadership coming along where you start getting the substantive kind of gains. I’ve never seen really tobacco control events without a strong political advocate who comes along and decides to do something about it.

CHW: That’s an interesting observation. So you’re suggesting acute crises like gun massacres or a toxic release open their own windows of opportunity for policy change whereas chronic health problems related to tobacco, alcohol or food may depend more on charismatic leadership. Can we return for a moment to gun control? In the United States, as you know, one of the key obstacles to reducing gun violence is the National Rifle Association. Its well-funded and skilled lobbying operation has been remarkably successful in blocking public health measures, even when public support for such measures is strong. What’s the situation here in Australia?

Chapman: Well, gun ownership is pretty widespread in Australia but it’s not as common as in the U.S. Here, however, the organized gun lobby is fairly small. Since the Port Arthur massacre, people who want to have a gun are obliged to be a member of a sporting shooting club or show a history of hunting. The equivalent of the NRA in Australia is called the SSAA, Sporting Shooters Association of Australia. SSAA has become very well off because all shooters now have to undertake an approved safety instruction course, as if safety was the issue. Safety is really a trivial component of gun injuries and deaths. To own a gun here, individuals have to register their attendance at a shooting range a minimum of four times a year. And the criterion of ownership of a gun for self- defense was explicitly removed. You can’t just say, “I want a gun for self defense.” The only reasons you can have a gun are if you are a member of a sporting shooting club or you are a bona fide gun collector, and then you’ve got to show evidence you’ve been collecting for a long time. It’s very difficult to become a new collector. The third reason to have a gun is that you have explicit permission from a rural property owner to go on their property and shoot kangaroos and feral pigs, or whatever. But just the idea that you can have a gun if you want to is not allowed.

CHW: So the SSAA has developed a close interdependent relationship with the government?

Chapman: Yes, they get training course fees and club registration fees and so they become quite powerful. For example, we had a state election last week and I discovered that the SSAA had given $350,000 to a political party called the Shooters Party to try and get them elected. In Australia, that is a big political donation. So the question is where did they get the money? They get it from shooter’s licenses so the irony is that the government will be opposed by a funding stream its own laws created.

CHW: How did you become involved in public health advocacy? Do you think there’s a potential for bringing health advocates together across issues like tobacco, guns, alcohol and so on?

Chapman: I got into advocacy because I had a typical community health education job when I was a younger guy, and a few like-minded colleagues and I became frustrated with being obliged to work in downstream problem solution, educating school teachers, that sort of thing. We could see all of this corporate malfeasance and industry promotion of unhealthy behavior all around us. I was working in the drug and alcohol areas, so I thought, if we’re going to be serious about reducing drug and alcohol problems, we need to address the upstream stuff. So I got involved in forming a public interest group that was a typical, totally unfunded, flying by the seat-of-the-pants opportunistic pebble in the shoe of the tobacco companies. In the early 1980s, we had a major victory when we were able to engineer an end to the involvement in a leading cigarette advertising campaign of Paul Hogan, the actor, who was Crocodile Dundee. Hogan was on every advertisement for this particular brand, and he had major appeal to children. The tobacco industry had a self- regulatory rule that just didn’t work so we challenged that process and won. All of a sudden with no resources we made a difference by strategically using the media and creative research strategies. So I started getting interested in advocacy principally in tobacco control. Then in the early 1990s, I got involved in gun control.

CHW: So you have had a lot of experience on several different campaigns. As someone who is interested in the advocacy process, how do you decide which issues to work on, which to study?

Chapman: Well, you can’t do everything in advocacy, so I do the things I am interested in and feel are important and I try to do things that when windows of opportunity open I can jump in and do something. Being opportunistic is so vital for effective advocacy and if you can’t make room for those opportunities when they open you’re not going to be very effective.

CHW: Are you talking mainly about media advocacy here?

Chapman: Media advocacy is, of course, only one component of the overall public health advocacy enterprise, but to me it’s rare for an advocacy campaign to succeed if there is no media advocacy component. It’s usually the elephant in the living room that runs it.

CHW: You’ve written about the public discussion of tobacco. How do you think media advocacy has affected that dialogue?

Chapman: The tobacco industry in Australia has largely vanished from public discourse. In fact, I’ve got a graduate student of mine working on going back and looking when it was that the tobacco industry started disappearing from the press. It’s around about the late l990s when all those documents came out because, of course, it was then so easy just to contradict everything they said by showing them their own words. But they now operate almost entirely through elite-to-elite communication channels, you know through funding of political parties, through funding of free enterprise foundations, that sort of thing.

CHW: So in effect, you’re arguing that successful media advocacy by tobacco control activists re-framed the media discussion and drove the industry to find new channels of communication. How do you think this lesson applies to other industries, say alcohol or food?

Chapman: The alcohol industry is the one where I get the most requests from people who say, “Can you do for alcohol what you helped do for tobacco?” To me, there are enormous fundamental differences between the two. The main one is that there is no safe level of tobacco use, whereas there is a lot of very respectable epidemiology that suggests that low to moderate alcohol use is actually beneficial. So in alcohol there are not too many points of comparison with the core messages of tobacco control which are: “Get rid of all advertising and promotion”, “Put the price of tobacco products up significantly”, “Reduce opportunities to get hold of tobacco”, and “Limit sales outlets”. I haven’t heard a really compelling call for banning all alcohol advertising.

On the other hand, my alcohol advocacy colleagues tell me about issues that do call for advocacy. For example, you can buy bulk wine in Australia in these boxes with taps on the bottom. You can get four liters of this wine for under ten bucks, and it’s the favored drink of indigenous people who have extraordinary health problems from alcohol. It’s taxed at a much lower rate than table wine, quality wine. But there’s no rationale for different levels of taxes. There ought to be a standard way of taxing all beverages by alcohol content.

CHW: I’d like to switch gears here and talk about teaching about the impact of corporate practices on health and the role of public health advocacy. How do you approach this subject in your public health curriculum?

Chapman: The very first lecture I give in my Public Health Advocacy course is a description of the traditional host, environment, agent and vector model from infectious disease epidemiology. And I say, let’s apply this to chronic disease epidemiology and to the tobacco industry, tobacco control. What is the vector? The vector is the tobacco industry. I tell my students that any comprehensive approach to chronic disease control, injury prevention, whatever, if you don’t address the vectors who are profiting from the proliferation of abusive behaviors, or dangerous products, then you’re going to miss the boat. So vector control in chronic disease invariably takes you into consideration of industry groups who are out to profit.

CHW: And do you see this as a model for public health folks or do you think it has a potential for mobilizing more popular political support?

Chapman: I see it as both. When politicians favor downstream solutions, more education, more information, rather than upstream solutions, that’s because the comprehensive control model that they’re using does not embrace vector control, control of industry. At the same time, I also think that sometimes industry can be very much a part of the solution.

The food industry is a particularly complex area for public health advocacy. If I ask nutritionists and dieticians, “Exactly what is it that you want people to put in their mouths?” they give me laundry lists of a good diet. And if I ask, “And where do you get hold of that diet?” they say, “Oh, you can buy it at shops.” And I say, “Well, who puts it in shops?” The food industry puts it in shops.

Any view of the future of nutritional change which sees the food industry as being only part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, is myopic. They are certainly part of the problem, but I think that public health advocates also need to understand how coalitions and relationships and networks can be formed with the food industry to push it in the right direction.

Too often the public sector and the NGO sector people concerned about obesity just talk to each other. But where does the average person get nutrition information? They get it from food labeling and from advertising. They may get a bit from public sector, but the total budget of the average bread company is bigger than the government’s entire nutrition campaign budget. So sometimes the role of government can be to stimulate the market to do something differently. With the tobacco industry, people say it’s so easy, so black and white.

CHW: What do you see as the global dimensions of health advocacy to change corporate practices?

Chapman: Well, in tobacco, there has been an immense amount of global networking and information and strategy exchange going on. For example, 190 NGOs have been very instrumental in making sure that the Framework Convention of Tobacco Control just passed in 2003 is fully implemented.

And the Internet has absolutely revolutionized advocacy practice. Not a day goes by where somebody isn’t saying, “Do you know this organization?” “Do you know that individual?” “This has happened. What would you do?” “Is this guy an industry stooge?” So that has been immensely important. I’m not as well connected with gun control any longer, but a colleague of mine runs the major website for the world, , which reports on breaking news about guns and gun control from around the world.

CHW: So if I can come back to ask your opinion on the underlying question. What do you see as the potential for campaigns, advocacy networks or actual social movements that would bring greater attention and action on some of these issues, particularly in Australia?

Chapman: I think there’s a lot of potential. Public health has got many specializations within it. You walk around the corridors of this building, the public health building at the University of Sydney, there are statisticians, behavioral scientists, epidemiologists, and anthropologists, and you walk into major NGOs and there is a Director of Marketing, of Community Development, of Campaigns, but there is seldom an Advocacy Director. Advocacy is unfortunately something that people seem to do in their spare time almost. In University settings, there are not a lot of people around the world who are teaching courses on Public Health Advocacy in Masters of Public Health degree programs.

Now in the States I know you’ve got that Hatch Law that prevents government workers from engaging in certain kinds of political activities. . There’s not the problem with that here. Here in Australia, advocacy isn’t a dirty word nearly as much as it is in the States. Government officials, of course, can’t advocate but NGOs are expected to do that. Academic research in the advocacy process is an emerging specialization within public health. The course I teach here is problem based. I give students realistic scenarios and I say let’s analyze what’s going on here, and I ask a series of structured questions. What is the public health problem arising from this scenario? What are our public health objectives? What are our media advocacy objectives that would suit our public health objectives?

Is there opportunity that would short circuit the need for advocacy? How are our position and our opponent’s position being framed in public discourse? How is the debate running in the media? Is it about unnecessary debt or is it about commercial freedom? Then drilling down even further, say a reporter phones, you’ve got a chance to say something that’s going to heard by 20 million people, and you’ve got seven seconds to say it. What are you going to say? So actually bringing that analytical process to considering what your intervention is going to be in that seven seconds. And then, are there other strategies in which you would engage beyond the media advocacy? Are there influential people you can see? Can you discredit your opponents?

CHW: Tell me about your new book, Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco: Making Smoking History. Ken Warner, the Dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a long-time tobacco researcher wrote about your book, “ I was fascinated, educated, and occasionally entertained by this broad and deep “manual” of how to do tobacco control in the 21st century.” What’s the aim of your book?

Chapman: Well, I think the goal of tobacco control is to make smoking history. In the book, I describe effective and ineffective approaches, condemn overly enthusiastic policies that ignore important ethical principles, and offer readers a cookbook of strategies and tactics for denormalising smoking and the industry that promotes it. I hope readers will find it useful.

CHW: Thanks very much.

Interview with John Johnson, Executive Director, Iowans for the Prevention of Gun Violence on the Campaign to Close the Newspaper Loophole

In March 2007, Cho Seung-Hui, a Virginia Technical University student, walked into a gun store in Roanoke, VA., and paid $571 for a Glock 9-millimeter handgun and a box of ammunition. A few weeks earlier he had purchased a Walther .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol at a pawnshop. On April 16th, the student used these weapons to kill 32 people and then himself, leaving the highest death toll of any such shooting episode in U.S. history.

The massacre in Blacksburg, Virginia, again focused media and public attention on the practices of the U.S. gun industry and its allies. One continuing issue has been the retail practices of gun sellers and the degree to which the gun industry monitors the sales of its products. In this report, we excerpt an interview, conducted in August 2006 (before the Virginia shooting) by Corporate Health Watch staff member Sarah Bradley with John Johnson, Executive Director of Iowans for the Prevention of Gun Violence, a founder of the national Campaign to Close the Newspaper Gun Loophole. This Campaign seeks to persuade newspapers around the country to refuse gun advertisements from unlicensed dealers.

CHW: Gun control advocates have used several strategies to restrict access to lethal weapons and reduce the harm from gun violence. What made you decide to focus on newspaper advertising of guns? After all, newspaper ads aren’t the biggest source of guns, are they?

JJ: No, newspapers are probably not the biggest source of guns. And we can see that, yes, there are probably more sales through gun shows and the internet, but the reason we focused on newspapers — I think this is important — is that it doesn’t require legislation. To close the “internet loophole” would require legislation. Closing the newspaper loophole doesn’t take an act of Congress. All it takes is a management decision. And gun ads are probably a very small source of the total income for the newspaper. That’s another factor that helps. Whereas if you went to people who do internet sales that’s their whole business. So you’re trying to get them to change their whole business. When we go to newspapers, we’re trying to get them just to change a tiny part of their business. So that’s why we focused on newspapers. Not that they’re the biggest source, but it’s an area where we thought we could have some success, and we have had some success. This sends an important message when newspaper publishers do make a change.

As a small group with two and a half staff and not a lot of money, the Campaign to Close the Newspaper Loophole made a decision not to focus on state and federal legislation, but to work on what we called non-legislative initiatives. When we get a newspaper to change, to us that means, “Okay, that’ll be 100 gun ads that won’t be sold through the newspaper this year.” We look at it as more than just the 100 guns that won’t be sold through the newspaper. We look at it as here’s a business that has made a responsible decision on the way they conduct their policies. The Campaign to Close Newspaper Loopholes shows that these businesses recognize the concern and have taken appropriate action, setting a good example for other newspapers and other businesses.

As I said before, I think the legislative strategy can change with the legislature. Right now, the legislatures are not friendly, throughout. And, therefore, I’d say at this point, it’s just a pragmatic decision. We just don’t think we could accomplish anything legislatively. You know that could change. We hope it will change. To pass a law in Iowa with the legislature, I have to get 100 people to vote. And they’re worried that if they vote this way, they’ll lose their job or something like that. Whereas to get 30 newspapers to change, all I have to do is go to 30 newspapers. So in my mind, it’s just a pragmatic decision. To use a football analogy, you “take what the defense gives you.” You know if they put ten men on the line of scrimmage, then you’re going to have to pass. Whereas, if they drop everybody off the line to cover the pass, then you need to run. So the strategy to go to the publisher is really an opportunity that we see is out there. These other opportunities don’t seem to be as realistic.

CHW: Can you give me some examples of how you approach newspaper publishers? What do you say and how do the publishers respond?

JJ: During the summer of 2002, I learned about a series of articles in the Detroit Free Press about the high number of homicides among teenagers in the city, mostly from firearms. From our previous survey, we knew this was a newspaper that took classified ads for all guns…shotguns, even hand guns from unlicensed dealers. Since the Detroit Free Press is a progressive newspaper in a large metropolitan city that generally has higher rates of crime than smaller cities and rural areas, and a paper that brought this issue to the attention of their readers, we thought it was a good candidate to change their policies. We always felt that the reason newspapers took gun ads was because they just hadn’t given it a lot of thought.

I contacted the President of the Detroit Million Mom March chapter. They’re a gun control organization, part of the Brady Campaign. And I explained to her about what our campaign to close the newspaper loophole was, asking newspapers to voluntarily refuse classified ads for guns, and to see if she would work with me to try to bring this issue to the attention of the management of the newspaper. She agreed to do that, and more than that, she put together a coalition of local activists ….

Ms. Hamilton sent a letter to the publisher of the Detroit Free Press, making the case for closing the loophole and asking for a meeting. We had a meeting with the management of the newspaper where all these local organizations went in and made the case. The next day the paper called up and said they’re going to change their policy.

CHW: That’s a great story — is it always that easy?

JJ: Another example comes from Florida, the Sarasota Herald Tribune. You couldn’t ask for an example that better shows the danger from these ads. A man was involved in a contentious divorce and child custody dispute with his spouse, purchased a semi-automatic hand gun from an unlicensed seller through a classified ad in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. On the same day that he bought the gun, which was a Sunday morning, he went to the home where his estranged wife was living and shot and killed her in front of their nine-year old daughter.

What made this incident interesting for us was that the murder was recorded in the newspaper; but the newspaper story never really reported how he got his gun. A person in Sarasota, Florida, read in the newspaper that after the shooting, the police executed a search warrant of the man’s house where they recovered newspaper ads and a gun receipt. But the article never said that he bought the gun from an ad in our newspaper. So this person in Sarasota sent me an email saying we might be interested in this. So we started working on this on our own. We called the sheriff’s office to see if they would give us information, and they said, “Well, the guy’s busy” and it was kind of a difficult. We looked at some court records online, and we were able to find out that the person who sold the gun was a man named John Spearman. We tried to find him through Internet searches and telephone books but that didn’t work. But I happen to have a cousin who lives in Bradenton, Florida, where this shooting happened. And I called her and said, “You know we think that somebody bought a gun through an ad in a local newspaper” and I asked her to go to the library and make copies of the ads for that weekend. I figured if he bought the gun it was probably an ad that weekend. So my cousin went to the library and sent me ads from the two local papers and we also finally got a hold of the Sherriff’s office, and they told us what kind of a gun was used; and we were able to match them up and confirmed that it was an ad from the Sarasota Herald Tribune. So I called this John Spearman and asked him if he sold the gun to the shooter. And he said, “Yea, I did. And you know what? That stupid idiot went and shot and killed somebody with it.”

So then we wrote a letter to the Editor/Publisher of the Sarasota Herald Tribune. We said, “An ad in your newspaper was the source of this gun,” and we made the request to close this loophole. We also wrote letters to about twenty other newspapers in Florida saying “An ad in the Sarasota Herald Tribune was the source of the gun used in a murder. You ought to consider changing your policies.” After sending that letter we started calling editors and set a date for a press conference. We were going to hold a press conference to increase public awareness of this concern. And when we called the Sarasota Herald Tribune, they said, “We have decided to change our policy.” In fact, they ran a front page story before our press conference telling their readers that they were changing their policy.

CHW: Did you get any other papers in Florida?

JJ: Yes, we got four or five other Florida newspapers out of those twenty.

CHW: I noticed that over the years your campaign changed its focus from asking newspapers to end all advertising for guns to asking them just to drop classified advertisements by unlicensed gun dealers. Can you explain that change?

JJ: Originally we did ask people just not to take ads for guns. Then we discovered a few newspapers that actually had the restrictive policy of taking ads from licensed dealers only. And we thought that was a better position to adopt. And so since we started our 50 state campaign — to reach newspapers all around the country — our position has been to ask publishers not to take classified ads for guns from unlicensed sellers.

We thought this approach would have broader appeal for a couple of reasons. One, I think it’s an easier position for us to argue. We come across less as anti-gun. And I’ve always felt it’s an easier position to advocate. Second, newspapers find it easier for them to implement. They could say, “Well, we have nothing against guns. It just that we’re concerned about the way they’re sold.” However, when the Sarasota Herald Tribune changed their policy, it was just “We won’t take ads for guns, period.” That’s even better.

CHW: Do a lot of licensed dealers advertise in newspaper classifieds?

JJ: No. Licensed dealers don’t typically advertise in the classifieds. They run retail ads. So by taking this position, not only is it an easier sell but it virtually eliminates all classified gun ads. I think it’s easier to frame the issue. And it’s a much more definitive issue. If a newspaper says “I’m not taking ads for guns”, then they’ve made a moral decision to not take ads for guns. But most people in business don’t want to be against guns because they want business from gun people.

CHW: So what do you think makes it so hard to make progress on developing stricter gun control laws?

JJ: To me, what makes this issue so hard is that everybody is against gun violence. I don’t think anybody is advocating for more violence. Even your most right wing NRA is not advocating for violence. We all agree we would like to have fewer gun deaths and injuries. But where we disagree is “How do you get there?” We have policies we support like a ban on assault weapons and background checks on gun purchases. But there are people in the NRA who believe the way to have lower gun violence is to have everybody carry a gun, and then we’d all be safer because criminals wouldn’t dare rob a store because everybody in the store would be armed even though there’s not much empirical evidence for that kind of perspective.

On this issue, I‘ve always tried to be fact-based. So look at the policy. Is there any reasoned analysis, data or studies that would indicate that it would work? The NRA and other people, they just have things that sound good to them. You know, “more guns, less crime.” It’s been so hard to counter these arguments that have no factual basis.

Courts and Congress Limit Rights of Local Government to Control Handguns

On March 9, 2007, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned that city’s longstanding handgun ban, issuing a decisionthat will allow the city’s citizens to have working firearms in their homes. In a 2-1 decision, the judges ruled that the activities protected by the Second Amendment “are not limited to militia service, nor is an individual’s enjoyment of the right contingent upon his or her continued intermittent enrollment in the militia”, setting the stage for a Supreme Court review since other federal courts have ruled differently. If the appeal does go to the high court, it would be the Supreme’s first case in nearly 70 years to address the Second Amendment’s scope. Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty has announced that the District will appeal the ruling, vowing, “We intend to do everything in our power to work to get this decision overturned, and in the meantime, we will vigorously enforce our handgun law.

In response to the court ruling, Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, observed that “by disregarding nearly seventy years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, two Federal judges have negated the democratically-expressed will of the people of the District of Columbia and deprived this community of a gun law it enacted thirty years ago and still strongly supports.” The NRA, on the other hand, applauded the decision, claiming that the “D.C. gun ban is a failure that costs innocent lives.”The court decision removed, at least for the time being, the right of municipal governments to ban handguns, further restricting the ability of local governments to regulate the gun industry. In 2005, Congress passed and President Bush signed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Firearms Act, a bill that prohibits civil liability actions from being brought or continued against manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or importers of firearms or ammunition for damages, injunctive or other relief resulting from the misuse of their products by others. Several municipal governments had sued the gun industry for its negligent oversight of the retail distribution of handguns. The new law blocks Mayors from using courts to require the gun industry to absorb the costs of its products.

And in the Senate, pro-gun legislators looked to enact federal legislation that would further limit Washington, D.C.’s scope. Inspired by the Court of Appeals victory, and with the support of the National Rifle Association, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, announced she would reintroduce a piece of legislation aimed at making handguns legal in the District, a measure that previously passed in the House, but failed in the Senate.

New study shows benefits of local action

Even as the federal government acted on several fronts to restrict the ability of local governments to control handguns, a recent study from Milwaukee, Wisconsin shows the public health benefits of local action. In an article in the September 2006 Journal of Urban Health, researchers from the Center for Gun Policy and Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health assessed the consequences of a decision by a gun store in Milwaukee to stop advertising Saturday night specials, cheap handguns frequently used in crimes. Prior to May 1999, a single gun store sold more than half of the guns recovered from criminals in Milwaukee. On May 10, 1999, the store decided to stop selling small, inexpensive handguns popular with criminals. According to the authors, over the next year, the “changed sales policy was associated with a 96% decrease in recently sold, small, inexpensive handguns used in crime in Milwaukee, a 73% decrease in crime guns recently sold by this dealer, and a 44% decrease in the flow of all new, trafficked guns to criminals in Milwaukee.”