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Gun Laws Breed Corruption
by Dr. Michael S. Brown
Power corrupts. This ancient truism is rooted in the dim history of humanity, but has expressed itself in America's fascinating experiment with restrictive gun laws.
The goal of all gun control laws is to restrict ownership to certain segments of humanity. The utopian idea of a total ban is obviously impractical, but lesser laws intended to keep guns out of the "wrong" hands have been too tempting to reject.
Laws that attempt to regulate the availability of handguns in the United States began in the Old South, where prohibitions on inexpensive or concealable guns were aimed at recently freed slaves.
Rapid immigration and social turmoil in the early part of the 20th century caused some Eastern cities to take similar measures. These were modeled on European laws that were considered to be successful in dealing with political dissidents, anarchists and labor agitators. The most notable was New York City's Sullivan Law of 1911, which required a police permit to own a handgun.
The common goal of all gun laws was to keep guns out of the hands of minority races and immigrants while allowing free access for established white citizens. This concept of legalized discrimination still exists in several states that have not reformed their gun permit laws.
Almost every state in the union has some method of providing permits to those who need or want to carry a concealed weapon (CCW). Thirty-three states offer permits to all citizens who pass a criminal background check regardless of race, ethnicity or social status. These are called "shall-issue" states.
I happen to live in the state of Washington, where a quarter-million permits are currently active under a shall-issue law. Permit holders have proven to be the most law-abiding single sector of society. Police agencies in Washington learned long ago that permitees are not to be feared. Applicants are universally treated in a cheerful and professional manner. When stopped for traffic violations, permit holders might even receive a bit of extra courtesy.
States which allow police departments to determine who gets a CCW permit are called "discretionary" or "may-issue" states. This system gives police chiefs and sheriffs a special power that is ripe for abuse.
The corruption of the discretionary CCW system is legendary. New York City has the most draconian gun laws in the nation. A rare police permit is required just to possess any firearm in your home. Even more difficult to acquire is a permit to allow concealed carry of a handgun.
The New York system has provided some of the most outrageous examples of how the system can be abused. Applicants must go before a special licensing officer, known for rude and punitive treatment of applicants, especially those who do not have connections.
An article in Newsday tells of one such officer who was suspended and fined in 1997 when his misconduct exceeded even the lax standards of his department. According to the Newsday article, "corruption and favoritism have run rampant within the pistol-licensing division for decades."
Ordinary citizens who have had death threats or those who operate small businesses in high-crime neighborhoods have little hope of obtaining a permit. And using an unlicensed gun to defend oneself in New York City is a guarantee of serious prison time, no matter how legitimate the defensive need.
According to information obtained through leaks and the Freedom of Information Act, many NYC permitees are celebrities and political cronies. The last time information was released, celebrity permit holders included William F. Buckley Jr., Donald Trump, Joan Rivers, a member of the Rockefeller family and Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the rabidly anti-gun New York Times.
Another over-represented group included those with crime connections. According to the Village Voice: "Other licensees include an aide to a city councilman widely regarded as corrupt, several major slumlords, a Teamsters Union boss who is a defendant in a major racketeering suit, and a restaurateur identified with organized crime."
Things may have improved somewhat in New York recently. Attorneys now advertise on the Internet that they can help obtain CCW permits, although the process typically requires several months and thousands of dollars. In New York City, only the wealthy have the right to armed self-defense.
This odd form of corruption is not due to the spiteful nature of New York cops. It is a logical result of a flawed system, as evidenced by blatant gun licensing corruption in other "discretionary" states.
In Massachusetts, a group called Pink Pistols criticized a discretionary licensing law in that state with this press release:
"From a civil rights standpoint, the law is horrifying," complained David Rostcheck, an activist with the Pink Pistols, a civil rights group that protects the rights of shooters with alternative sexualities. "It's racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, and it discriminates against the elderly and disabled. When people actually sit down and read it, even ardent gun control advocates are shocked at what it legitimizes. A police chief can deny a license to a legally qualified person based on their gender, their housing, their sexual orientation – absolutely anything they want. Jesse Helms never managed to pass legislation this discriminatory."
When a state law fails to provide a uniform standard for issuing CCW permits, it is impossible for local authorities to bestow this privilege fairly. Even if common human failings like greed and prejudice could be eliminated, other factors still prevent effective administration of discretionary laws. Personnel turnover, political pressure and variations from one area to another ensure that citizens will not receive fair and equal consideration of their requests.
The latest and most prominent efforts to expose the corruption of discretionary CCW laws are being undertaken in California. In addition to the usual requirements, California state law says that if applicants can prove that they are of "good moral character" and have a "good cause" they will receive a permit.
Perhaps being an anti-gun politician counts as good moral character in California. Two famous permit recipients are fanatically anti-gun U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and gun-owner-hating California State Senator Don Perata.
Activist Jim March has begun a long campaign to reveal how California cities and counties are abusing the law and their citizens. Law enforcement agencies do not want this information to become public, even though court decisions have declared that it cannot be kept secret. They know that their discriminatory practices violate various laws and court decisions, so Mr. March is forced to file official requests under the state Public Records Act.
His first target was Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Mr. March documented the bizarre tangle of illegal regulations and Catch-22s that face residents of Marin County who wish to apply for a permit. Applicants with some connection to the government receive preferential treatment. A person with no government connection may be refused even when he meets the same standards.
During his research, March turned up a police report from Sacramento County that gives more insight into the way that CCW laws are abused in parts of California. The honest officer who typed the report described how he arrested a drunk who apparently showed someone his pistol in an unfriendly manner. The drunk turned out to have a CCW permit issued by then-Sheriff of Sacramento County Glen Craig.
The officer asked how someone who worked in the construction business was able to obtain one of the hard-to-get permits. The response was: "It is all political. It is just a big game. I am a major contributor of [current sheriff] Lou Blanas and Glen Craig and they gave me a concealed weapons permit."
The City of Oakland was next. Only one citizen in Oakland possesses the necessary good moral character to receive a CCW permit in that city of 400,000 souls. This gentleman happens to be a close crony of the mayor and is known for his behavioral problems, which are highlighted by a sexual harassment suit that the city settled out of court for $50,000.
March's current target is Santa Clara County, which has a reputation for corrupt and discriminatory CCW policies. This county illegally refused a Public Records Act request from another activist, Nadja Adolph, so she and March are considering a lawsuit to force the county to release its CCW data.
Adolph and March publish their results on the popular website KeepAndBearArms.com, where supporters of gun rights eagerly await the next juicy details of California corruption.
Another investigation is being undertaken for the California Rifle and Pistol Association. Attorney Chuck Michel said in a phone interview that he has filed 250 information act requests for CCW records around the state. Only about 100 police agencies have responded.
Michel is particularly familiar with the odd strategy pursued by the City of Los Angeles. All permit requests there are routinely denied, generating numerous lawsuits that cost the city approximately $100,000 a year to defend.
At one time, the Los Angeles County sheriff allegedly created a special reserve unit that allowed him to award CCW privileges to celebrities, friends and campaign contributors. This was while he routinely denied permits to citizens with multiple death threats.
Under discretionary laws, police officers are forced to decide whose life is worth protecting. Like something out of medieval times, the average working man or woman is denied a permit while celebrities and political cronies are blessed by local warlords with the privilege of defending their lives.
Thirty-three states have already reformed their laws, with excellent results. Contrary to the shrill scare tactics of the anti-gun lobby and some self-serving law enforcement agencies, blood did not run in the streets and people did not suddenly begin to murder each other over minor disputes. Violent crime, in fact, decreases when shall-issue laws are enacted.
Peaceful Vermont, perhaps the most enlightened of all, needs no permit system of any kind, since any adult who is not prohibited from owning a firearm may carry it concealed at any time for any lawful purpose.
Discretionary carry laws are a breeding ground for police corruption and an anachronism that should not exist in a society that prides itself on fair and equal treatment for all citizens.
Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws: www.dsgl.org.
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