Aug 27 2012

The Gun Violence Epidemic and Our “Insane” Gun Laws

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A disgruntled former designer of women’s accessories shot and killed an ex-colleague on Friday near the iconic Empire State building in New York City. The gunman, identified as Jeffrey Johnson, was killed by police during the ensuing gunfight that wounded nine bystanders, none of them with life-threatening injuries. According to police, Mr. Johnson had filed several complaints regarding workplace harassment against the victim before being fired. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg condemned the shooting, which occurred during the height of tourist season saying “New York City is the safest big city in the country, but we are not immune to the national problem of gun violence.”

And over the course of three days since Friday, 9 people were killed and 28 wounded in Chicago from separate incidents of gun violence. The youngest victim was a 15 year old girl who was fatally shot when her teenage companion accidentally fired a gun.

The New York and Chicago shootings are part of a growing epidemic of gun violence. On August 15th, a man shot a security guard at the Family Research Council headquarters in DC. On August 5th, a gunman tied to white supremacist groups killed six people during Sunday services at a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin before being shot dead by police. On July 20, masked gunman killed 12 people and wounded 58 others during a showing of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado.

According to the most recent FBI crime reports, 68% of all homicides in 2010 were gun related.

Although, numerous polls show most Americans support stricter gun control measures, neither Democrats nor Republicans have voiced a commitment towards gun control legislation reform. While the GOP has almost unanimously rejected calls for stricter gun laws, the Obama Administration has only recently come out in support for stricter gun regulations. During a speech days after the Aurora shooting, President Obama said ” [We] should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons… we should check someone’s criminal record before they can check out a gun seller.” However, the president’s speech falls short of making gun control a central point of his re-election platform.

GUEST: Elliot Fineman, Chief Executive Officer of the National Gun Victims Action Council (NGAC)

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Rough Transcript:

Sonali Kolhatkar: What happened in New York on Friday, what happened in Chicago over the weekend, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, is, I suppose, something Americans are almost getting used to, almost getting immune to. When we keep hearing about these shootings, are we seeing an uptick in gun violence, or are we just noticing it now?

Elliot Fineman: I think we’re noticing it now, and, of course, the more publicity it gets, the more you get imitators, you know, copycats of the same incidents. But what the reality is, is that our gun control laws are insane. I don’t use the polite word of not reasonable or not sensible or need to be improved, they’re utterly insane. And the attitude toward guns is kind of divided. Most people perceive guns, gun violence, as being an inner-city problem. Or, occasionally, a mentally ill person getting a gun and going on a rampage. What they don’t understand is that there’s a dramatic advancement, by the NRA and the pro-gun extremists, of more insane gun laws. They want, for example, guns to be carried on planes, you know, citizens carrying guns on planes. They want guns in the office workplace. They want guns, you know, they want to give guns to people with Alzheimer’s disease. And the advancement of these insane gun laws are going to put the people who think gun violence is not a part of their world, is going to put them directly and their loved ones at risk. Let me ask you a question, Sonali. I don’t know where you live?

Kolhatkar: Los Angeles.

Fineman: Okay, I don’t know what part, but when you left your home today, were you worried about being a victim of gun violence?

Kolhatkar: Well, no, not really.

Fineman: Not really? And why not?

Kolhatkar: Well, there’s very few people at the hour when I am up, but, yeah, I guess we expect to feel safe in our neighborhoods.

Fineman: Well, and that’s the whole point. The reason, if I might suggest, that you feel safe, is that in the daily living of where you live your life, you very rarely come into contact with people carrying guns. And so, you have a sense of, this is not an issue for me. But the NRA’s goal, it’s announced, it’s not a secret, is that they want everyone carrying a gun at all times, everywhere they go. I’m going to say that again. They want everyone carrying a gun, at all times, everywhere they go. It’s a marketing goal, by the way. That’s, forget all the other fluff they give for their reasoning about defending against tyrannical government, or self defense. This is just pure marketing. And, like tobacco hid the risks of smoking–they knew that tobacco caused cancer for decades before the public found out–the NRA has gotten legislation passed that hides the facts from the public. But just on a kind of intuitive sense, if they accomplish their goal, it means that everywhere you go–the restaurants you go to, the movies you go to, the supermarket, the soccer games you go to–everywhere you go, people will be carrying guns. And I would suggest to you, you would not feel safe in such an environment. But that’s where we’re heading, if people don’t pay attention.

Kolhatkar: Now, there was an interesting study in July that showed that members of the NRA, the National Rifle Association, actually overwhelmingly support a number of common-sense measures that we would call gun control. For example, while 87 percent of non-NRA gun owners want to have criminal background checks on gun owners and gun shop employees, a full 74 percent of NRA gun owners also support that. So that’s pretty amazing. And the number of other statistics as well, 71 percent of NRA members want to prohibit people who are on the terrorist watch list from acquiring guns, and 64 percent of NRA members want gun owners to be mandated to tell the police when their gun is stolen. I mean, these are pretty common-sense things that you would want to even assume are already part of the law, but aren’t.

Fineman: Well, here’s the reality. The great number of gun owners, the statistics you read confirming it, whether they belong to the NRA or do not, are all up and support sensible, sane gun laws. But you have an extremist portion, it’s roughly 15 to 20 percent, who are against any sane gun law, and then you have a–I’m going to call them corrupt, because that’s what they are–you have a corrupt leadership that has no interest in public safety, but only wants gun laws passed that increase the sales of guns. That’s their purpose. They’re an industry association, their purpose is to maximize the sales of guns. And, unfortunately, just as we’ve seen in the general society, where I think something like 70 percent or more of the people want taxes to be raised on the rich to support social safety networks, or 70 percent of people wanted us to get out of the Afghanistan war, the politicians don’t represent the will of the people.

Kolhatkar: Well, there was earlier this month a conference in Aspen, Colorado at which five prominent Republican governors gathered in Colorado, having just had the terrible attack in Aurora, during the showing of the Batman film. People were very sensitized to what had happened and Governor Christie, of Colorado, said that his state actually has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, and he supports that. And then, this is what he said. He said, “I’m really repelled by the reactions to things that happened in the state and by politicians tripping over each other to take advantage of the tragedy before people even had their funerals, and tried to turn it into a political cause. I think it’s wrong, and it’s done by a number of politicians. At least have the funerals for the dead before we start lining up with bills for Congress and holding press conferences.” What do you make of this reaction?

Fineman: This is the typical pro-gun NRA strategy. That when the horrific shooting takes place, they immediately say nobody should talk about it until the families have a chance to recover, gather their wits, and gather some peace about it.

Kolhatkar: So, basically until the public has forgotten about it as well.

Fineman: Yes, that’s it. And it’s a deliberate, specific strategy. I can think of no more appropriate time to talk about the insanity that leads to these things, or enables these things, than at the time they happen. And I think it’s most appropriate to talk about it at such a time.

Kolhatkar: Elliot, you’re the CEO of the National Gun Victims Action Council. Can you share with us your own story, and how you came to be doing this work?

Fineman: Yes, I can, Sonali. On the morning of December 31st in 2006, a Chicago policewoman came to my door to tell me that my son had been murdered the night before, sitting in a restaurant in San Diego with his wife. The murderer was a paranoid schizophrenic who had legally obtained the gun and had come into the restaurant, and by the time everything was done, he had put four bullets into my son’s head.

Kolhatkar: Just randomly, he didn’t even know your son?

Fineman: No, they had no connection at all, other than at the restaurant, the murderer hovered over my son’s table–my son was dining with another couple, and his wife–and was mumbling incoherently. And my son immediately called the wait staff and asked them to call 911. My son had been a combat medic with the special forces and especially trained in psychological operations. So he asked them to call 911. They didn’t. They escorted the murderer out, and 11 minutes later, he came back with a gun and put four bullets in my son’s head. So, that, Sonali, is how I got involved with this. It took me a long time to recover, and recover is, you know, not quite the right word, but at least be able to function in a rational basis. And what I did is, I had my own practice. I was a strategic marketing advisor to Fortune 500 companies. And I closed that practice to bring that skill set into the gun arena. And going in, I knew nothing, other than I thought guns were kind of dangerous, and I didn’t particularly want them. But as I studied it–strategic marketing advisors, who tell a Fortune 500 company what to do, are research junkies–when I studied the market, the gun market, the gun arena, it became utterly clear that the gun laws were insane. Why they remain insane, and increase becoming worse, and why the strategy following couldn’t be successful, and worked on developing a new strategy that can be successful.

Kolhatkar: Elliot, just to stop you there, the NRA might react saying, if your son had been armed, or if someone else in the restaurant had been allowed to carry a gun in legally, they might have been able to save your son. How do you respond to those sorts of reactions?

Fineman: Well, I think the best response is what happened in New York, just the other day. The police, who were trained to shoot under stress and to deal with situations like this, missed a whole bunch of shots and shot nine bystanders. Nine people who had nothing to do with this were wounded by the police shooting. This myth that you, carrying a gun, can defend yourself, is utterly misplaced. The element of surprise always trumps a gun carrier. And the civilian gun carrier, who might have had two days of training, or no training, for that matter–you can get guns and concealed carry permits with no training–but if they might have had two trainings once, years ago, are not going to do better than police, and the police missed seven out of ten shots. So, no, the element of surprise, it wouldn’t have mattered if my son was carrying a gun, the element of surprise took his life. And you can see that, for example, when President Reagan was shot. He was surrounded by Secret Service carrying guns, by police carrying guns, and the would-be assassin got off all six shots from his 45-dollar handgun and hit four people before being subdued. So carrying a gun offers no realistic possibility of self-defense.

Kolhatkar: Finally, Elliot Fineman, as delegates from both major parties are gathering for their conventions, this week the Republican National Convention in Florida, next week in Charlotte the Democratic National Convention, what is your message to elected officials, who really try to avoid talking about gun control at all costs?

Fineman: I have no real message to them. We’re not going to get any changes in gun laws trying to appeal to officials and to act rationally. It’s just not going to happen. What we need to do is to get corporate America involved, because if corporate America wants sane gun laws, we’ll have them.

Kolhatkar: And this is from your own background, working, as you said, with Fortune 500 companies.

Fineman: Yes.

Kolhatkar: So how would that work?

Fineman: Well, we for example, right now, have established a boycott since Valentine’s Day against Starbucks, because Starbucks allows people to open-carry guns in the 49 states that allow open carry, and they allowed guns to be concealed and carried in the 43 states that allow conceal and carry. This is unlike companies like Disney, or California Pizza Kitchen, or Peet’s, or Ikea, who have gun-free premises. So we’re working to try to get Starbucks to try to change that position. And we will be successful. Right now we have nearly 7,000 people who were former Starbucks customers, that are boycotting, not spending close to 6 million dollars a year that they were spending. But that’s not a big number to Starbucks. But a year from now, because we’re picking up 100 to 200 a week, that number will be 70 million a year.

Kolhatkar:Well, give out a website, Elliot, finally, where our listeners can find more information.

Fineman: Yes. It’s

Kolhatkar: That’s

Fineman: And we’re putting together–I’d like to just say one more thing–a circle of major corporation who are going to advocate aggressively for sane gun laws. They have more money than the NRA, they have more influence, they have more ability to reach the public. And that’s how we’re going to get sane gun law. We’re not going to get it by appealing to the politicians going to the conventions.

Kolhatkar: All right. Well, Elliot Fineman, I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

Fineman: My pleasure. Take care.

Kolhatkar: Elliot Fineman is the Chief Executive Officer of the National Gun Victims Action Council, NGAC. More online about them at

Special thanks to Marjorie Hunt for transcribing this interview.

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