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Posted 10/23/11

THERE’S NO ESCAPING THE GUN

A prosperous community discovers that mass murder is an equal opportunity threat

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  A paunchy middle-aged man turned away from the grisly scene and headed for his car. Eight were dead or dying, including his ex-wife. Scott Dekraai had just set a record that would go down in infamy.

     Acquaintances said that Dekraai, 41, had been a pleasant, easy going man until a 2007 tugboat accident that killed a shipmate and left him partly disabled. His life quickly unraveled.  Within months a court order was filed directing him to stay away from his father in law, who claimed that Dekraai had beat him up. (The order, which required that Dekraai temporarily give up his guns, expired one year later.) Dekraai’s wife Michelle, a hair stylist, filed for divorce, and they became embroiled in a child custody dispute that would drag on for years. She told coworkers at a beauty salon that she feared he would kill her.

     No one took it seriously. After all, this was Seal Beach, a tony Southern California coastal community of 25,000 where such things don’t happen.  Who could predict that Dekraii would don a bulletproof vest, invade Salon Meritage and blaze away with three large-caliber pistols?

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays, 2007-2012

     But on October 12, 2011 that’s exactly what he did.

    “He stopped to reload, and then continued gunning people down,” said Orange County D.A. Tony Rackauckas. “He was not satisfied with murdering his intended target, his ex-wife. For almost two minutes, Dekraai shot victim after victim, executing eight people by shooting them in the head and chest.  He was not done.  He then walked out of the salon and shot a ninth victim, a male, who was sitting nearby in a parked Range Rover.”

     In addition to Michelle, who was first to be gunned down, Dekraai murdered the shop owner, Randy Fannin, stylists Victoria Buzo and Laura Elody, Christie Wilson, a nail artist, customers Michele Fast and Lucia Kondas, and David Caouette, 64, a passer-by whom Dekraai encountered in the parking lot. Laura Elody’s mother Hattie Stretz, who was visiting the salon, was gravely wounded but survived.

     Dekraai (he quickly surrendered) wasn’t a criminal in the conventional sense. Neither was Orange County’s previous record holder.  In 1976 Edward Charles Allaway, a 37-year old custodian at Cal State Fullerton, turned a semiautomatic rifle he bought at K-Mart on fellow employees, killing seven and wounding two. Allaway’s wife had just sued for divorce.  Psychiatrists diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic.  He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental hospital, where he remains to the present day.

     Los Angeles County’s mass murder record is held by Bruce Pardo.  He, too, was no ordinary criminal.  On Christmas eve 2008 the 45-year old, freshly divorced engineer barged into the residence of his former in-laws with five pistols and a homemade flamethrower that he had concealed under a Santa suit.  By the time he was done nine were dead including his ex-wife, her parents, a sister, a nephew, and two brothers and their wives.  Like Dekaai and Allaway, Pardo had no criminal record.  Unlike them, he had the good sense to kill himself.

     Learning theory says that behavior is shaped by watching others.  While America isn’t the only place where disturbed persons use guns to release their demons (keep in mind the recent massacre in Norway) the frequency of these events – what we’ve referred to as their “ordinariness” – suggests that there’s a lot of monkey-see, monkey-do going on in the U.S.A. In March we wrote about the Tucson massacre, where an college dropout with mental issues shot and killed six and wounded thirteen including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D - Ariz.)  A post in August 2010 spoke of a disaffected truck driver who shot and killed eight co-workers after being fired for stealing beer.  We took that opportunity to review six other multiple-victim shootings between January and July 2010 that seemed  motivated by no purpose other than letting off steam.

     Here is an update.  Keep in mind that this is only a sample, as to list all such incidents would take a lot more than a blog post.

  • 10/18/11:  A New York man facing a divorce trial beat his estranged spouse to death and used a shotgun to kill their two children, Molly, 10, and Gregory, 8. Samuel Friedlander, 50, then shot himself dead.
     
  • 10/6/11:  A “well liked” but disgruntled Northern California truck driver opened fire on coworkers with a handgun and a rifle, killing three and wounding six, some critically.  Shareed Allman, 46, then tried to carjack a vehicle, wounding its driver.  He was later shot and killed by police.
     
  • 9/7/11:  Disturbed by a failing relationship, a West Virginia man shot and killed five persons inside a home.  Shayne Riggleman, 22, then ran over a motorist and critically wounded a gas station attendant. He committed suicide as police closed in.
     
  • 9/6/11:  A Nevada man opened fire with a rifle at a Carson City retail center and inside an IHOP restaurant, killing four and wounding seven. He then killed himself.  Eduardo Sencion, 32, was said to have “mental issues.”  His motive is unknown.
     
  • 8/7/11:  Angered by comments about the appearance of a home where he lived with his girlfriend, Ohio resident Michael Hance, 51, went on a shooting rampage.  He killed seven and wounded two before police shot him dead.
     
  • 7/24/11:  A stormy relationship ended at a roller rink, where the husband shot and killed his wife and four of her family members.  He also wounded four others.  Tan Do, 35, then turned the .40 caliber Glock on himself.
     
  • 7/11/11:  Wyoming man Everett Conant III, 36, shot and killed his three teenage boys and his 33-year old brother inside the mobile home where they lived. He also seriously wounded his wife.  A former employer said that Conant was having personal problems.  Police arrested him without incident.
     
  • 7/8/11:  Angered by his wife’s decision to leave him, a reportedly bipolar 34-year old ex-con with a violent past shot and killed her, their daughter and his in-laws. He then went gunning for others, killing a former girlfriend, her sister and the sister’s daughter.  Rodrick Dantzler then took his own life.
     
  • 6/13/11:  Barred by a restraining order from visiting his children, Maine resident Steven Lake, 37, grabbed his shotgun, went to his estranged wife’s home, and shot and killed her and their two children.  He then committed suicide.
     
  • 11/14/10:  A 29-year old Pennsylvania man shot the mother of their three children, then shot the kids and himself. A two-year old was the sole survivor.  The “sweet” couple had reportedly been arguing.
     
  • 9/27/10:  A 41-year old Florida man ignored a restraining order and went to the home of his estranged wife.  He shot and killed her and four stepchildren, ages 10 to 14, and wounded a 15-year old.  He committed suicide as officers arrived.
     
  • 9/11/10:  Enraged that his eggs weren’t cooked right, a rural Kentucky man “not known to be a violent person” used a shotgun to murder his wife and four neighbors.  He then turned the weapon on himself.
     
  • 9/1/10:  A few days after being arrested for violating a restraining order a California man shot six persons in an Arizona resort city, killing five including his estranged spouse.  He returned with two children to California, where he committed suicide.  The children were unharmed.

     We’ve long argued that the availability of guns overwhelms our ability to prevent their misuse. According to the NRA there are nearly 300 million firearms in the U.S., including 100 million handguns, with about 4 million new guns entering circulation each year.  That may actually be an underestimate.  According to ATF in 2010 American gun makers produced a whopping 5,403,714 firearms.  Only four percent were exported.

     Here’s one old refrain: “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Here’s another: “Let’s enforce the laws we have.”  Federal and state laws bar convicted felons, persons adjudged as mentally defective and individuals under active restraining orders from possessing firearms. But our examples aren’t about ordinary criminals.  Our chronology of terror includes only one ex-con. True, some of the shooters were emotional basket cases, yet none had been adjudicated mentally ill, the threshold before laws kick in. And while three were under active restraining orders, trusting in a piece of paper to convince an embittered man (all the killers were male) to give up his guns seems a very, very long shot.

     It’s for such reasons that the NRA promotes gun carry laws. Armed citizens, it insists, can keep shootings from happening in the first place.  Well, good luck with that.  An armed citizen was present at the Tucson massacre.  He didn’t intervene, partly for fear that he might shoot an innocent person, and partly because responding officers might shoot him.  As for the episode in Seal Beach, it would have taken snipers lying in wait to repel Dekraai’s attack.  And what’s to be done about the many incidents that take place inside a home?  Should family members pack guns to the dinner table?  Should spouses always be armed? And when it’s time to go night-night, who puts away their Glock first?

     Carrying pro-gun arguments to their inevitable, ridiculous conclusion highlights the profound intractability of America’s gun dilemma. But while we can’t rely on the law to work miracles, maybe we can promote the notion of watching one’s temper and using guns wisely.

     Consider, for example, that the UCR attributes at least one in four homicides in 2010 to “arguments,” and that these led to the deaths of 323 wives, 60 husbands, 28 mothers, 62 fathers, 39 sons and 15 daughters.  NIJ reports that about 1.3 million women and 835,000 men are assaulted by an intimate partner each year, and that as many as half of all female homicide victims (2,918 women were feloniously slain in 2010) were murdered by their partners.

     Domestic murder-suicide has become such a common occurrence that it merits its own NIJ page.  As one might expect, virtually all are by gun:  “More incidents of murder-suicide occur with guns than with any other weapon. Access to a gun is a major risk factor in familicide because it allows the perpetrator to act on his or her rage and impulses.” According to the Violence Policy Center there were 591 such deaths during the first six months of 2005. Three out of four involved an intimate partner, and three out of four happened at home.  Researchers coined the category of “family annihilator” to describe men who go berserk and gun down everyone, including the kids and the dog. Nearly all (92 percent) of murder-suicides are done with guns, so their availability is thought crucial:

    The most common catalytic component in murder-suicide is the use of a firearm. Firearms allow shooters to act on impulse...The presence of a gun allows the offender to quickly and easily kill a greater number of victims. If there had not been easy access to a firearm, these deaths may simply have been injuries, or not have occurred at all. Efforts should be made to restrict access to firearms where there is an increased risk of murder-suicide, for example where an individual has a history of domestic violence and/or has threatened suicide.

     Well, good luck with that, too. We’ll instead peddle our favorite remedy, a national campaign to alert the public to the problems of gun violence.  Let’s remind everyone that rage and guns are a lethal combination and that early intervention by friends, family members and mental health professionals is the best preventive.

     Friends may not be able to keep angry friends from owning guns, but they can surely do something.  In our gun-crazed culture there is really no alternative.

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RELATED ARTICLES AND REPORTS

Violence Policy Center on murder-suicide     Gun buyer record checks miss many mentally ill

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Posted 3/13/11

LETTING GUNS WALK

Pressed to make a really big case, ATF managers went for broke

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  “If you’re going to make an omelette, you’ve got to break some eggs.” That, said ATF special agent John Dodson, was his agency’s excuse for allowing more than 1,700 firearms, including scores of AK-47 clones and .50 caliber, armor-piercing rifles, to land in the lap of Mexican cartels.  “The day I started, there were 240 guns they had [let out]...Guns they were purchasing were showing up on both sides of the border already. I mean...a guy comes in and purchases 10 AK-47s, and four of them he purchased last time have already shown up on the other side of the border? And you keep going?”

     The flow of guns from the U.S. to Mexico is a long-standing problem.  With laws that forbid private citizens from possessing handguns beyond .38 caliber and rifles beyond .22’s, our Southern neighbor has long been a favorite destination for American hardware. (For an English-language summary of Mexican gun laws click here.)

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays, 2007-2012

     Your blogger, a retired agent, worked on many such cases in Arizona during the 1970’s.  (For an example, click here.) Then, as now, traffickers got local residents to act as “straw buyers” and buy large-caliber handguns and rifles at gun stores on their behalf.  In the nineties, when Mexico moved in earnest against the cartels, wars for supremacy broke out and arms smuggling reached a fever pitch.  Much of the flow turned to military-style rifles such as the WASR-10, a Romanian AK-47 clone that is apparently imported into the U.S. for the main reason that it’s such a desirable commodity in Mexico.

     Most states, including the primary sources of guns smuggled to Mexico, Arizona and Texas, impose neither quantity limits nor waiting periods on gun purchases. Ordinary persons can walk into a gun store and leave with an armful of rifles in minutes. All they must do is show a local ID, pass an automated criminal record check and certify on a Federal Form 4473 that they are “the actual buyer/transferee of the firearm(s) listed on this form.”  That’s right: no matter how many guns they buy, it’s all on the honor system. (For more about the ease of purchasing guns click here.)

     Dealers don’t report long-gun sales to ATF, so it usually only learns of a bulk transaction when police or a foreign government trace a recovered gun.  However, Federal regulations require that dealers who sell more than one handgun to the same buyer in a five-day period promptly report the transfer to ATF.  Multiple sales are common, and by the time that agents learn of them it’s too late to intercede.

     It’s not simple to prove that someone acted as a straw buyer. Purchasers are under no obligation to answer ATF questions. Neither are gun possessors, nor those to whom recovered guns are traced. Even when someone admits to falsifying an ATF form the penalties (a maximum 5-year prison term) are weak.  “Lying and buying” is taken lightly by Federal attorneys, who often decline to prosecute, and by judges, who invariably impose lenient sentences. That’s not just the blogger’s opinion: it comes from no less an authority than the Department of Justice, whose November 2010 review of Project Gunrunner, ATF’s guns-to-Mexico interdiction program, declared the pursuit of straw buyers a dead cause:

    Because there is no federal firearms trafficking statute, ATF must use a wide variety of other statutes to combat firearms trafficking.  However, cases brought under these statutes are difficult to prove and do not carry stringent penalties – particularly for straw purchasers of guns. As a result, we found that [Federal prosecutors] are less likely to accept and prosecute Project Gunrunner cases. And when these cases are prosecuted and convictions obtained, Federal Sentencing Guidelines categorize straw-purchasing­related offenses as lesser crimes.

     Since drug trafficking crimes are much more popular with prosecutors and carry far harsher penalties, auditors urged that ATF stop spinning its wheels on minor cases and partner with DEA to pursue the cartels. Forewarned that criticism was coming, ATF had already published a new set of guidelines, “Project Gunrunner – A Cartel Focused Strategy,” laying out the new approach:

    While our strategy will remain multi-faceted and continue to include the inspection of licensed gun dealers and the targeting and arresting of straw purchasers, our revised approach will place greater emphasis on investigations that target specific cartels and the persons responsible for organizing and directing firearms trafficking operations in the United States. We have come to understand that we can best impact firearms trafficking to Mexico and Southwest border violence by linking our investigations to drug trafficking organizations and where possible to specific Mexican cartels.  Our efforts will also be enhanced through increased coordination with our Federal counterparts.

     Prophetically, the writers threw in a few words of wisdom along the way:

    There are also practical considerations that may require bringing investigations to a conclusion or dictate a change in investigative tactics prior to the identification of persons directly affiliated with the [drug trafficking organizations.]  Examples include high volume trafficking investigations in which numerous diverted firearms identifiable with one or more purchasers are being used in violent crimes and recovered by law enforcement, and high volume trafficking investigations in which over an extended period ATF cannot reasonably determine where or to whom such firearms are being trafficked. SACs must closely monitor and approve such investigations, assessing the risks associated with prolonged investigation with limited or delayed interdiction....

     In the real, messy world of investigating gun traffickers the “egg-breaking” that agent Dodson spoke of is hard to avoid. When your blogger established a gun trafficking group in 1993 (yeah, that’s a ways back) the very first case demonstrated the difficulties of keeping track of small, lethal objects. Police caught a parolee with a gun.  It was traced to a small, home-based dealer who had been buying dozens of handguns at a time from a distributor. We got the seller to let us know when the buyer returned.  Alas, the first notice came late and the load was lost. But the next time we were positioned well in advance. We followed him from the premises and watched as he met with others, then trailed one of these third parties to a small restaurant.  Later that evening, agents intercepted its manager – the fourth person in the chain – as he delivered five pistols (all that was left from an original load of thirty) to residents of a gang-infested neighborhood.

     It wouldn’t be the only time that guns would slip through our fingers (for a published account of the years-long project, click here.) But the losses were usually small, and considering the fact that local cops were recovering north of 10,000 guns a year there was little choice but to plod on.

     Well, back to the future. In October 2009, nearly a year before it formally adopted a cartel-centric strategy, ATF had implemented a pilot program in Arizona.  In an operation dubbed “Fast and Furious” agents tracked the activities of a group of gunrunners who had already bought 200-plus guns from Phoenix retailers.  Hoping to bring down a cartel, agents clued in the dealers, and with their assistance monitored and videotaped gun purchases for the next fifteen months, letting a stunning 1,765 guns pass under their noses.

     Not everyone on the F&F team was a happy camper.  Its most outspoken former member, special agent John Dodson, insists that four of the seven agents assigned to the project opposed letting guns “walk.” Objections were voiced by other ATF insiders, including the attaché in Mexico City.  He was right to worry.  ATF estimates that to date at least 195 F&F guns have turned up in Mexico.  A furious Mexican legislator has claimed that these weapons have been involved in “150 cases of injuries and homicides.”

     Mexico took the brunt of it.  But F&F guns inevitably started turning up in the States. In May 2010 a Border Patrol agent recovered several during a tense confrontation with bandits. Then in December two F&F guns were found at the scene of the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian A. Terry.  While it’s not thought that they were used in his killing [but see 07/26/11 update] the recovery brought the ill-starred project to an end. In January 2011 Federal prosecutors indicted thirty-four suspects, mostly straw buyers and moneymen, on gun charges.  Surprisingly, a few were also accused in a drug and money-laundering conspiracy.

     You see, “Fast and Furious” was never meant to be just a gun case.  True to its ambitions, ATF had partnered with DEA to go after the Sinaloa cartel.  It may be that the unseemly delay in shutting down the iron pipeline was influenced by hopes that, given enough time, agents could hook the big fish.  Well, they got away, but there was apparently enough evidence, perhaps in the form of wiretapped conversations, to snare a few lesser players on drug charges.

     So was waiting worth it?  According to Attorney General Eric Holder the answer is a resounding “no.”  As he recently pointed out, guns are different.  “I’ve...made clear to people in the department that letting guns walk … is not something that is acceptable.  Guns are different than drug cases, or cases where we’re trying to follow where money goes.” Well said. Now if the A.G. would only get Federal prosecutors to take ordinary gun cases more seriously, we’d be all set.

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RELATED ARTICLES AND REPORTS

Details about shootout that led to death of Border Patrol Agent Brian A. Terry

 

Los Angeles Times full coverage on Fast and Furious     Los Angeles Times documents on Fast and Furious

 

Washington Post long-form article about Fast and Furious     Arizona Republic overview of Fast and Furious

 

House Oversight Committee Report on Fast and Furious     The Militarization of the U.S. Civilian Firearms Market

 

2011 Senate report on gun smuggling to Mexico     Sources of Crime Guns     The Iron River

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Posted 1/11/11

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Restrict the possession of “ordinary” guns or get used to regular massacres

     By Julius (Jay) Wachtel.  “I have a Glock 9 millimeter, and I’m a pretty good shot.”  That’s what Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D - Ariz.) told a New York Times reporter last year.  Only months later she would be fighting for her life, shot through the head with the same brand and caliber of pistol.

     On January 8, Jared Loughner, 22, opened fire with a Glock 9mm. pistol during the Congresswoman’s “Congress on your Corner” event at a Tucson supermarket.  The unemployed, sometime student – he got booted from college for disruptive behavior – killed six, including a 9-year old girl and a Federal judge. He wounded thirteen, including Ms. Giffords.

     Loughner was tackled by citizens while reloading his pistol.  A search of the home where he lived with his parents yielded a prior letter from the Congresswoman and several notes suggesting his intent to carry out the assassination.

Click here for the complete collection of gun control essays, 2007-2012

     By any measure Loughner is a very sick puppy. His MySpace account was full of disconnected thoughts and delusional ramblings about off-the-wall subjects like government thought control.  He wrote about returning to the gold and silver standards – with him in charge of the Treasury.  “Mein Kampf” was listed as one of his favorite books, which might seem insignificant until one considers that his intended target, Ms. Giffords, is active in Judaism.

     Loughner fits the archetype of the murderous loner to a tee.  Past acquaintances described him as odd and reclusive.  His in-class rants at Pima Community College frightened classmates and instructors. A video he posted about the college was the last straw.  He and his parents were called in and told that Loughner couldn’t return unless he was psychologically cleared. In his one known run-in with the law police cited him for scrawling the letters “C” and “X” on a street sign, which he said symbolized Christianity.

     Loughner might have been a very odd duck, but he was nonetheless qualified under Federal law to buy a handgun.  He was a legal U.S. resident, over 21 years of age (the minimum to buy a handgun), not a convicted felon, not under indictment, and was never adjudicated (meaning, in court) as mentally defective. On November 30, 2010 Loughner walked into Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson and purchased a Glock 9mm. pistol. Arizona has no state waiting period or gun-training requirement, so Loughner left with the gun right after passing the criminal record check. Oh, yes. Thanks to a 2010 amendment to state law, as a legal possessor over the age of 21 he was also automatically entitled to carry the weapon either openly or concealed on his person, no permit required.

     But it’s not just Arizona.  Ordinary handguns like the Glock 9mm. can be purchased anywhere in the U.S. In California, which is considered the most restrictive state – magazine capacity is limited to ten rounds and a permit is required for concealed carry – buyers must pass a brief safety exam and wait ten days to pick up their gun.  And that’s it.

     It’s really quite convenient.

     Actually, what most stands out about the events in Tucson are their ordinariness. In “Say Something” we pointed out that “shootings by purportedly ‘ordinary’ people have become such a common feature of American life that we seldom give them much thought.”  Troubled young males who use guns to give vent to their demons are nothing new. Prior examples include the April 1999 Columbine (Colo.) High School massacre, where two male students killed 13 and injured 21, the March 2006 Capitol Hill massacre, in which a deranged 28-year old man opened fire at a youth party in Seattle, killing six and wounding two, and the April 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where a mentally disturbed 23-year old college senior killed 32 and wounded 25.

     Virginia Tech has remarkable parallels to the Tucson massacre.  Its perpetrator, Sung Hui-Cho, was armed with two pistols that he had recently bought at gun stores. One was a Glock 9mm (the other was a Walther .22). Cho also had mental problems; indeed, his were so serious that a judge had ruled him mentally ill.  Unfortunately, Virginia’s procedure for entering that information into the database used to clear gun purchases was lacking, enabling Cho to buy guns.

     Reaction to the Tucson shooting was swift.  Many observers, including outspoken Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, laid blame on a “toxic political environment” that replaced reasoned discourse with posturing and threats.  During last year’s Congressional races Sarah Palin’s political action committee televised ads to which Congresswoman Giffords objected: “The way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district.  When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.” Sheriff Dupnik and others also blame lax gun laws and the expiration of the assault weapons ban, which also prohibited high-capacity ammunition feeding devices such as the 30-round magazines used by Loughner.

     But if we’re seeking to prevent wackos from going on a rampage, all the half-hearted “bans” and regulatory initiatives in the world would make little difference. Ordinary guns are the elephant in the room.  Medium-caliber semi-auto pistols such as the Glock 9mm. are exceedingly lethal regardless of magazine capacity. And that’s to say nothing of the increasingly popular and even more deadly .40 caliber pistols (yes, Glock makes those, too.)  Or the wildly popular “Big Boomer” handguns, whose projectiles pierce ballistic vests as easily as knives cut through butter.

     What’s needed, of course, is a fundamental reset in our attitude about firearms.  Unfortunately, guns, politics and ideology have become impossibly conflated. What’s more, in 2008 the Supreme Court decided in Heller that having a gun, at least in the home, is an individual right. While the Justices suggested that they would support “reasonable” regulation, their decision put proponents of gun control on the defensive. It’s no longer about moving forward: it’s about not losing any more ground.

     Bottom line: without severely restricting the kinds of guns that citizens can possess (which, by the way, isn’t going to happen) there’s no way – none – to prevent massacres. Don’t believe it?  Read the posts linked below.

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RELATED ARTICLES AND REPORTS

Arizona Republic series on guns     Gun Control: Facts and Myths     Gun buyer record checks miss many mentally ill

RELATED POSTS

There’s No Escaping the Gun     Say Something     Long Live Gun Control     Gun Control is Dead

Looking Beyond the Gun Barrel     Safe at Home, Not!     Gun Crazy     Don’t Blame the NRA     Hillary Shoots Duck

Shoot First, Then Reload     Disturbed Person


               Click here for Jay’s collected gun control essays                        Click here for Jay’s new novel, “Stalin’s Witnesses”

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