Under the gun
No easy way forward on gun reform, lawmakers and gun advocates say
By Jake Armstrong 02/17/2011
Los Angeles County prosecutors continued to seek answers in court this week in the shooting death of Abraham Rodriguez, a 17-year-old who was gunned down on the streets of Northwest Pasadena following an altercation with a parolee in March.
But what the case against 23-year-old Terry Lee Adkisson may never reveal is how the .25-caliber pistol allegedly used in the crime got in the hands of the defendant, a parolee who was in police custody on robbery charges when he was arrested on suspicion of murdering Rodriguez.
Chances are that answer will remain elusive, clouded by federal gun laws that expressly prohibit such information from becoming public. But if the .25-caliber was like any of the 32,000 other guns California police recovered at crime scenes last year — or in any of the four years before that — there’s a good chance it originated in one of nine states with weak weapons laws that are part of a veritable pipeline for guns used in crimes here, according to a recent report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of more than 500 big-city mayors that for four years has studied the nation’s illegal gun trade in hopes of halting it.
Yet even for lawmakers spurred to action on gun reform following the Arizona supermarket shooting that killed six and nearly claimed the life of one of their own, enacting laws to prevent similar incidents — much less stopping the flow of illegal guns across state and national borders — is a task made no easier with a more Second Amendment-friendly majority installed in one half of Congress, and an administration that so far appears unwilling to take on relatively minor alterations to the patchwork of laws governing guns in the United States.
“It gets to a point of absurdity here on the gun issue,” said US Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena, speaking by phone last week from Washington DC. “There’s certainly more of a will after the horrific shooting in Tucson, but I don’t think enough has changed yet to make meaningful progress on the issue.”
Just last week, the Obama administration delayed acting on an emergency request from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that would require gun dealers along the Mexican border to report anyone who buys multiple assault rifles, which are increasingly turning up at crime scenes in Mexico after being trafficked from the United States. “I’m not very encouraged about our ability to enact common-sense gun safety laws,” the congressman said.
Here in California, where a bill to prohibit gun owners from publicly carrying unloaded weapons in plain sight is set for debate in the state Assembly, gun rights advocates also doubt that ability. They say the bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, would instead force jurisdictions to issue concealed weapons permits to practically all comers, given recent court rulings affirming the people’s right to bear arms.
“I’m not sure they appreciate the legal can of worms they are opening here,” said Chuck Michel, spokesman for the California Rifle & Pistol Association.
One in three
Since 2002, state law has required law enforcement agencies to trace all firearms recovered in crimes. In the past 10 years, Pasadena police recovered nearly 1,700 guns used in crimes or possessed illegally, according to a Pasadena Weekly review of evidence logs. About 100 of those guns recovered in 2010 were among the 32,673 crime guns recovered in California that year, according to Christian Hoffman, spokesman for ATF’s Los Angeles field office. However, federal laws keep confidential trace data for individual weapons, making it impossible for the public, politicians or the media to identify where specific guns that kill 12,000 or maimed people in their state originated.
But Mayors Against Illegal Guns annually analyzes what ATF gun trace data is available to help locate where some of the firearms were first sold.
In its latest report, released in late 2010, the group found that 49 percent of guns that crossed state lines before being recovered in a crime were initially sold in one of 10 states. Moreover, the group found that Arizona, Nevada and Texas topped the list of states supplying guns to California, with 1,697 crime guns — nearly one in three of the guns used in California crimes in 2009 — coming across their borders into the Golden State, according to the group.
Nearly all of the crime guns traced were first sold by licensed dealers and made their way to the illegal market via theft or robbery, negligent sales by crooked gun dealers, straw buyers who purchase guns for criminals, and private sales at gun shows, for which many states do not require any type of background check.
In January, Mayor’s Against Illegal Guns released a survey showing that nearly 90 percent of Americans and 81 percent of gun owners support background checks on all gun sales. The survey also found that 90 percent of Americans and gun owners favor fixing gaps in government databases that are meant to prevent the mentally ill, drug abusers and others from buying guns.
Anyone who wandered into a Los Angeles-area Starbucks a year ago might have noticed groups of men openly displaying their holstered, unloaded handguns, which is permitted under state law. Police say that practice generates unnecessary emergency calls and fear, depleting dwindling resources. Yet as the clock on the 2010 legislative session wound down, a bill that would have banned open carry was left on the floor without a vote, following opposition from the National Rifle Association and the CRPA.
But Portantino is confident the bill, which he called a “prudent, logical closing of a loophole,” will get a vote and pass this year.
“It does not take anyone’s rights away for owning a weapon,” he said. “But what it does say is the needless display of automatic firearms on Main Street California does not really have a point other than making a political statement. And should we have weapons be a part of a political discussion?”