You Live Free, We Die

In the wake of the Arizona shootings, it’s comforting to think that the strict firearms regulations in Massachusetts keep us safe. But the truth is that it’s as easy to evade our gun laws as it is our sales tax—just head north.

Illustration by Shout

Illustration by Shout

IN ARIZONA, A GUNMAN OPENS FIRE in a supermarket parking lot and six people, including nine-year-old Christina Green, are killed. Thirteen others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, are wounded.

In Massachusetts, we shake our learned heads at the gunslinger mores of the Wild West and congratulate ourselves that such horrific gun violence could not happen here. The 9-millimeter Glock that in seconds sprayed the Tucson crowd with dozens of bullets is banned in Massachusetts. The gun permit that the assailant did not need in Arizona is mandatory here. The cursory background check required there is reinforced here with rigorous, time-consuming reviews. There is no disputing it: Massachusetts has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation.

But it’s a delusion to think they are keeping us safe.

Our gun laws didn’t save Julissa Brisman. Philip Markoff simply went to a licensed gun shop in Mason, New Hampshire, plunked down somebody else’s ID, and walked out with the 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun he used to kill her in 2009. And the gun-procurement method of the so-called Craigslist Killer was no aberration: In 2009 almost 64 percent of guns found at crime scenes in Massachusetts and traced by authorities were purchased out of state. New Hampshire was the top supplier, followed by Maine. Georgia and Florida — lenient gun-control states along what has become known as the I-95 gun-trafficking corridor — supplied most of the rest.

There is no news in these statistics, which come from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Mayor Tom Menino has been complaining about our porous borders for more than a decade. He knows what the victims in Massachusetts know: Gun violence is happening here.

Shootings increased by 17 percent in Boston last year, leaving 206 people wounded and 58 dead — a sharp spike in fatalities from 2009, when 35 people were killed by gunfire. Four of those who died last year, including a toddler, were gunned down in the street in Mattapan, a scene no less shocking than the one in Arizona. Was two-year-old Amani Smith any less innocent than nine-year-old Christina Green?

We do not yet know the origin of the weapon that also left a fifth victim paralyzed in that Mattapan shooting, but we do know the way many of the guns in Boston find their way here. In a recent piece for the Dorchester Reporter, Stephen Kurkjian and Pat Tarantino of Northeastern University’s Initiative for Investigative Reporting wrote about the purchase of 18 Boston-bound handguns in Georgia by two women on behalf of two felons. The straw purchasers had no records to pop up on the perfunctory background check that federally licensed gun dealers are required to perform so they can flag anyone dishonorably discharged from the military, convicted of a felony, or ruled mentally incompetent by a court.

Private sales in most states get even less scrutiny. Gun shows, unregulated
in New Hampshire and 32 other states even after the massacre at Columbine, attract private sellers who can hawk guns out of car trunks without doing even the 10-minute database check required of licensed gun dealers working the same show.

Which means that the stringent background checks, scrupulous permitting process, required safety courses, and mandatory trigger locks in Massachusetts offer false reassurance. Those practices won’t stem the carnage so long as it is as easy to evade state gun laws as it is to avoid the state sales tax by buying that flat-screen TV at the Rockingham Park mall.

THE PROPRIETOR OF ABE’S AWESOME ARMAMENTS sees things differently. Thorough in his record-keeping, wary of fidgety buyers, and conscientious about performing the same background checks at gun shows that he does in his log-cabin shop just off I-93 in New Hampton, New Hampshire, Abe Foote says licensed gun dealers in his state are vigilant about following the law. Responsible dealers cannot be held accountable if guns sold lawfully later turn up at crime scenes because they were either stolen or resold illegally by the original buyer. That could happen as easily in Massachusetts as New Hampshire.

In Foote’s view, Massachusetts-style regulation harasses law-abiding gun owners without deterring criminals. Restricting the bullet capacity of magazines or the number of guns an individual can own assumes criminal intentions and violates individual liberty. If guns are the problem and tough laws the solution, Foote asks in all sincerity, then why is New Hampshire a more peaceful place to live than Boston? That so many crime guns in Boston originate in New Hampshire does not alter his view. “My sales are all legal,” he says. “If [the guns] are stolen, that’s beyond my control.”

He is certainly right that requiring more rigorous and consistent vetting and a standardized permitting process would inconvenience responsible gun owners in states that now have more permissive rules. But it would not undermine their right to buy and keep firearms. Public safety sometimes demands a compromise of personal freedom.

Common sense is often easier to describe than it is to put in action, though. Because the truth is, when it comes to self-righteousness and sanctimony, it’s hard to beat the gun-rights or the gun-control crowds. With partisans so convinced of their own virtue, discussing guns in the United States is a lot like discussing abortion — a conversation destined to devolve into crude caricatures of “gun nuts” or “baby killers.”

That we are a nation divided on gun control is indisputable. In the aftermath of Tucson, each side remains dug in. A poll by the Pew Research Center after the shootings found an almost even split on the question of whether the rights of gun owners should take precedence over the need for gun control — findings unchanged from a similar survey last fall. A CBS poll yielded comparable results.

This is not 1968, when the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy prompted a fleeting — and futile — push to ban handguns in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court has settled that issue with two recent landmark cases, ruling for the first time that individuals have a Second Amendment right to possess firearms for private use.

But this is one of those critical moments when both sides of a divisive national debate need to rein in the rhetoric long enough to acknowledge the obvious: Keeping guns out of the hands of the criminally intentioned and the mentally ill cannot be accomplished with a patchwork of inconsistent state laws. Only federal regulation, strictly enforced, can impose a uniform system of background checks and permitting practices that weed out the unstable. Only a federal mandate can create and adequately fund the kind of comprehensive database that will ensure that deranged and violent individuals do not have access to lethal firearms. (The National Instant Criminal Background Check System maintained by the FBI is now so stymied by the failure of most states to do full background checks on those who should be flagged that the General Accounting Office continues to report that even those on terror watch lists have been able to buy guns.)

The sensible middle needs to wrest the issue from the absolutists at either extreme. The problem cannot be resolved in a debate between the owner of Abe’s Awesome Armaments — who flies a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag at the entrance to his shop and blames the stalemate on liberal do-gooders who don’t know a hunting rifle from a handgun — and John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence, who rotates provocative antigun messages on a 252-foot billboard alongside the Mass. Pike and blames the body count on politicians who gorge themselves on National Rifle Association “blood money.”

The public is somewhere in between. There is no national consensus about reinstating the assault weapons ban that Congress let expire in 2004, nor about banning magazines that allow a shooter to fire 31 bullets in 15 seconds, as Jared Loughner allegedly did in Tucson. But there is agreement that the law should keep guns away from the deranged and the dangerous.

THE CONTENTIOUS ABORTION DEBATE of the past 38 years could actually prove instructive here. There will never be common ground between those who believe that abortion performed a week after conception constitutes murder and those who think a woman’s right to control her child-bearing decisions is absolute. But the nation has found a way since Roe v. Wade to discuss limits on the procedure while still protecting a woman’s constitutional right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. In our ongoing discussions about parental consent, sex selection, fetal viability, and public funding we have been stumbling toward some workable middle ground.

We can do the same with guns.

Yes, there will always be an illegal market for guns, fueled by thefts or by negligent sales by gun dealers. But it is an abdication of responsibility to simply throw up our hands and settle for the mishmash of existing state gun laws. The issue has our attention now because on a sunny morning in Arizona, a disturbed man with a powerful gun critically injured a prominent white woman, and killed a little white girl, a white federal judge, a young white man engaged to be married, and three white retirees.

In Boston, most of the victims of relentless gun violence are young, black, and poor, concentrated in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan — neighborhoods that are as easily circumvented by indifferent white suburbanites as the state’s gun laws are by illegal gun traffickers.

It is a nice gesture that Governor Deval Patrick keeps refiling legislation to further toughen gun laws in Massachusetts, limiting an individual’s purchase of firearms to one per month. But the New Hampshire legislature is back in session, too, and right next door. Its first order of business was to repeal the ban on carrying guns in the State House.