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The Weight Of The Gun: The Role Firearms Play In Arizonans' Lives
A mass shooting at a Florida high school in February has fanned the flames of the national gun debate, intensifying emotions throughout the country.
This four-part series examines Arizona’s complex relationship with firearms — from the right to bear arms as outlined in the Second Amendment, to the politics, economics and safety concerns that divide the state’s residents today.
Gun Laws & Politics
In the wake of the Florida school shooting, the national gun debate has intensified in Arizona.
Emotions in the gun debate following the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are running high, no matter whether they are directed at greater gun control or support of the Second Amendment.
But, what does the right to bear arms even mean in the 21st century?
As recently as 2008, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia answered that question. He wrote the majority opinion in the landmark case District of Columbia v. Heller.
“The right to bear arms that the Supreme Court has so far recognized is not a general right to bear arms. It’s not even a right to hunt. It is a right to have, in your home, a weapon that’s commonly thought of as an appropriate weapon to use to defend yourself at home. It’s not a freestanding right to have whatever gun you want for whatever purpose you want to use it,” said Paul Bender, professor of law and dean emeritus for the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.
He said when it comes to regulating weapons, the decision is clear.
“Justice Scalia mentioned a whole list of regulations of guns that would not violate the Second Amendment. For example, he mentioned assault rifles,” Bender said.
Recognizing the ruling in the Heller case, Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island introduced the Assault Weapons Ban of 2018 in late February. He said it’s a mirror of the previous federal ban that sunset in 2004. Speaking in a recent CNN interview and citing favorable public sentiment, Cicilline said the previous ban worked to reduce mass shootings.
“An assault weapons ban will reduce the lethality and the frequency of mass shootings. It’s a very specific problem we’re confronting as a country,” Cicilline said. “The assault weapons ban that was previously enacted worked. We should do it again. And we should listen to the voices of these eloquent young people who are telling the adults, ‘You need to stop talking about this and get something done.'”
Cicilline’s bill has yet to be put on the agenda by House Speaker Paul Ryan.
In Florida, just three weeks after the Parkland shooting, Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation into law that raises the minimum age for all gun purchases, creates a waiting period, bans bump stocks, allows for the arming of school employees and expands funding for mental health care.
The Florida legislation does not ban assault weapons like the AR-15, which has been used in numerous mass shootings, nor does it ban high-capacity magazines like those used in the Las Vegas shooting last October.
There’s plenty of precedent for state legislation that limits gun possession. In 1967, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan signed The Mulford Act, which repealed a law allowing public carrying of loaded firearms.
“There is absolutely no reason why, out on the street today, a civilian should be carrying a loaded weapon,” Reagan said back then.
The legislation in California was crafted to prevent the Black Panther Party from conducting armed patrols of Oakland neighborhoods and, at the time, received the backing of the National Rifle Association.
Here in Arizona, the weight of the gun debate is heavy.
Some state legislators, like Rep. Randall Friese — a trauma surgeon who treated a young girl who died in a mass shooting that wounded former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — say for many decades, Arizona has chosen to go in the wrong direction when it comes to responsible gun ownership.
Speaking on the lawn of the Arizona Legislature recently, Friese pointed to loopholes in current state gun laws.
“If you purchase a firearm from a personal sale either in someone’s home, garage, parking lot or even at a gun show, with a personal sale a background check is not required," he said.
Gov. Doug Ducey is focusing on mental health funding and speeding up background checks which he says are too slow and allow dangerous people to buy guns. Ducey’s plan does not close the loopholes Friese illustrated, nor does it ban bump stocks.
The political power base in Arizona is unwavering in not limiting certain types of guns and accessories. Nearly a dozen bills proposing firearms restrictions this year have not even received a committee hearing.
Those in power claim they represent the will of their constituents. Whether that attitude prevails in an election year is up to voters.
Crimes & Mass Shootings
Author Mark Twain is widely credited with popularizing the phrase, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
When it comes to statistics involving gun crimes, Second Amendment advocates like Phoenix gun attorney Marc J. Victor say keeping gun out of the hands of Americans who shouldn't have them isn't reasonable.
“There’s 330 million firearms just in our country. It’s not truly realistic to think that we’re going to keep non-competent people from getting firearms," said Victor, speaking at a Second Amendment rally in Phoenix in February.
Gun control advocates also focus on statistics.
Leah Barrett is the executive director for New Yorkers Against Gun Violence.
“I have a message for Congress: ‘It’s the guns, stupid.’ So get onto it and start regulating. The third word in our Second Amendment, which people quote as though it’s scripture, and it’s not, it was just made by a bunch of men in the 18th century, is ‘well-regulated.’ So what about ‘well-regulated’ does Congress not understand?” said Barrett.
Both sides agree on one thing: gun violence is a problem in the United States.
The FBI definition of the term mass shooting is “an incident involving four or more people shot at once.” There have been no mass shootings in Arizona in 2018. But since the year began, state news has been replete with dozens of stories about gun crimes, gun murders and reports of suspicious behavior on school campuses involving firearms.
Arizona recently received a grade of F on the Giffords Law Center’s annual gun law scorecard. Spokeswoman Laura Cutilletta said passing laws that go beyond Gov. Ducey’s latest proposal would improve the state’s grade.
“Arizona could join the other states, one of which is California, and require background checks for all gun sales, including at gun shows, including from a private, unlicensed person. They could also prohibit or at least regulate in some way assault weapons like the one used in the Parkland shooting," said Cutilletta.
Cutilletta said Arizona has the 16th-highest number of gun deaths in the United States per capita. Arizona also exports crime guns at twice the national rate, ranking 9th in the United States for the rate of guns being recovered after being used in crimes in other states.
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 1,100 people suffered a firearm death in Arizona in 2016. That includes suicides.
When it comes to countering criminal activity involving guns, police can only enforce laws that are on the books.
“Whatever laws, rules and regulations that the elected officials and the community vote on, we will uphold. I do applaud the efforts, although, of the young people who are getting involved in speaking out," said Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams. "I’m applauding the exercising of their First Amendment rights.”
It’s important to remember that law enforcement agencies like the Phoenix Police Department are just that. They enforce laws on the books. As civil servants, they are equally exasperated by the high incidences of shootings. They have little voice in the debate on gun control.
“Whatever is proposed to us by law, we will follow. I really try to stay away from the politics of things because I don’t get to pick and choose which laws to follow. So, whatever the elected officials come up with and the people vote on, we will follow those as to the oath we take," said Williams.
Statistics inform language, and thereby law. Enforcement agencies have no power beyond it.
They must serve and protect what voters, and by extension, their representatives in local, state and federal government, codify into statute.
Valley Of The Gun Sale
You don’t have to drive far on any major street in the Phoenix metro area to pass a firearms retailer or pawn shop that sells guns.
According to Trent Steidley, assistant professor at the University of Denver who studies federal firearms licensing, “Maricopa County has the most federal firearms licenses [FFLs] in the U.S. Maricopa County makes up about 1.4 percent of all the FFLs in the entire U.S.” Steidley said those figures include guns, gun accessories and ammunition — with over 1,100 dealers here.
Nationally, the valuation of gun and ammunition sales has slumped over the last 16 months. In fact, just this past Sunday, legendary gun manufacturer Remington filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization.
“The day after Trump was elected, the stocks of gun manufacturers actually took a big hit in the days following his election,” according to Jeffrey Moore, senior risk analyst for Global Risk Insights.
The firearms industry contributes approximately $51 billion to the national economy and employs over 300,000 workers according to data provided by Dunham & Associates, an economic research firm based in Brooklyn, New York.
According to the same firm, Arizona is ranked 19 th in the U.S. in terms of economic dependency on the firearms industry based on such metrics as state gun ownership rates, total gun sales, the minimum age to purchase firearms, strictness of state gun laws and the presence or absence of state statutes that protect gun manufacturers and dealers from liability lawsuits.
Here in the Valley, many authorized firearms dealers are reluctant to comment on this story, but one representative from Aztec Pawn & Gold, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “Probably handgun sales will be a third more than rifle sales because there’s only so much stuff people can do with long guns in Arizona. For hunting, you have to go pretty much up north. There’s not a lot of hunting that’s around the Valley. For handguns, it’s not necessarily for concealment. It’s easier for them to handle them. They can put them in their house easier.”
The Arizona Department of Revenue does not break out gun sales separately from individual retail sectors, according to spokesman Ed Greenberg. So it’s difficult to ascertain how much gun sales ctribute to Arizona’s economy. The most recently published database from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, Arizona had nearly 140,000 firearms registered in 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available.
Although national tax revenue data for firearms industry sales is published annually by the ATF, the field offices in Arizona do not drill down. “We do not keep records of any sales tax or issues with FFLs. It’s a private business, regulated through ATF, but we do not have a hand in monetary sales or their tax issues,” said Thomas Mangan, public information officer for the ATF in Phoenix.
But what about the economic cost of gun violence in Arizona?
“Obviously shootings that affect children are going to be much more expensive because the lifelong costs of that shooting are going to be much higher,” according to Kelly Drane, public health research associate for The Giffords Law Center. She said with up to 85 percent of gunshot victims being uninsured, Arizona taxpayers spend approximately $334 million each year as a direct result of gun violence.
As the national and state conversations over how to reduce gun violence continue, it’s important to examine the debate from as many angles as possible in order to implement effective policy. That includes the economic impacts in the “Valley of the Gun Sale.”
Since 2003, the percentage of mass shooting drills at U.S. public schools has more than doubled, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
While training is an important component of school safety, it is clear following the Valentine’s Day shooting in Parkland, Florida students across the nation and in Arizona are exasperated by the deficiencies of federal and state policymakers to prevent killers from gunning them down on their campuses.
Shouting “We want change. We want change,” thousands of students from Valley schools gathered, marched and spoke in solidarity at the Arizona Capitol on March 24, demanding changes to Arizona gun laws.
Lindsay Schawelson, a senior at Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, was one of the organizers of the March For Our Lives event in Phoenix.
“So we have three main ones right now. We’re calling for universal background checks, bans on bump stocks and more funding for school counselors, not school resource officers," Schawelson said at the march.
Worldwide, over 800 sibling protests calling for gun law reforms transpired over the weekend, including in Washington, D.C.
“Me and my friend Carter led a walkout of our elementary school on the 14th. We walked out for 18 minutes adding a minute to honor Courtlin Arrington, an African-American girl who was the victim of gun violence in her school in Alabama after the Parkland shooting,” said 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, speaking in front of an estimated crowd of 200,000 in the nation’s capital.
She invoked the words of one of America’s most revered African-American writers.
“So I am here today to honor the words of Toni Morrison. ‘If there is a book you want to read that hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.’ I urge everyone here, and everyone who hears my voice to join me, to honor the girls and the women of color who are murdered at disproportionate rates in this nation.”
In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed school safety plan includes an emphasis on money for mental health resources as well as more school resource officers, increasing punitive measures for those who use guns irresponsibly, preventing the mentally ill and criminals from obtaining firearms, and so-called “stop orders” that would allow law enforcement agencies to temporarily seize guns if there’s reason to believe somebody is a threat to themselves or others.
“This protects public safety. And balancing that with the Second Amendment rights of Arizonans, we think this is something that both sides can come together on,” said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for Gov. Ducey. He said the plan would be able to achieve bipartisan support.
Mark Kelly, retired astronaut and husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, said the tone of those pushing for greater gun safety in 2018 is different, particularly because it’s being led by the nation’s youth. Speaking on ABC’s This Week on March 25, Kelly said, “These young people seem quite motivated and they realize that they have been dealt an incredibly difficult set of circumstances.”
He's also impressed that the youth are speaking to both sides of the political aisle.
“None of them on the stage said ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican.’ They realize this needs to be a bipartisan approach to change. So they get that," said Kelly.
Irrespective of politics, clinicians like Dr. Bela Sood, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Virginia Treatment Center for Children at Virginia Commonwealth University said that while creating safer schools is important, she "would humbly suggest that perhaps we need to be looking at proactive approaches of why these events occur and how can we get better at detecting them, which really goes to things like school climate and looking at why is it that people feel so disenfranchised and end up committing these types of events.”
Sood, who was a member of then-Virginia Governor Tim Kaine's independent panel to investigate the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2006 said what’s missing for many students is often a sense of belonging to a larger community. “We need to start from the elementary schools up, where you’re really establishing the civic sense—the sense of collaboration, the sense of society essentially.”
As the election season continues in Arizona, a lot of the youth involved in the push to create safer schools won’t be able to vote. Only time will tell if their voices will be heard by the adults who represent them.