Ready, Aim …

I’ve never seen the man before, don’t know his name. But he’s definitely local or he wouldn’t be embedded at the local gun store, where he presents an air of native permanence, while I’ve only lived in this rural Northeast Georgia community for 15 years. So, I’m the gatecrasher here, asking questions about the hundreds of firearms on display, taking notes, handing out business cards.

He takes the card, looks at it, smiles and asks, “you a liberal or conservative?”

I say, “I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to ask about guns.”

Except, this guy knows better. Any discussion about guns becomes a political debate faster than you can say, “reach for the sky,” especially in Georgia, where policymakers are pushing legislation to radically overhaul the state’s gun laws. That’s kind of like firing a gun with a plugged barrel while wearing a blindfold, according to people who have experience studying the issue.

“The problem is, what can we do to reduce the number of firearm deaths and injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners,” says Mark Rosenberg, former director of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) at the CDC, and now the president/CEO of the Centers for Global Health, based in Decatur. “We can’t rattle off ideas at the top of our head and expect to get anywhere. We need to do the research, because the fact is, we don’t know what works, so it wouldn’t be fair to ask policymakers to try and pass legislation if they don’t know what works.”

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills has a different angle – he believes in enforcing laws that already exist. “I wish the legislature would call us sometimes,” quips Sills, a veteran cop and immediate past president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association. “I am adamantly opposed to anything more than what we have now. We already have a plethora of laws to deal with criminals who use guns and I’m telling you, it’s not being utilized.”

But when it comes to guns in this country, reactionary partisanship sparked by emotion or the deep pockets of the gun lobby (think the National Rifle Association) or both, is the norm. In 2013 the General Assembly considered bills that would not only arm public school teachers and administrators but also allow weapons on college campuses (the controversial ‘campus carry’ provision), or in churches, bars, airports, government buildings, on public transportation – places where guns are typically restricted. Supporters of this kind of thing claim that looser gun restrictions will make Georgia safer.

“Now, anywhere you go you are in danger,” says Jerry Henry, executive director of GeorgiaCarry.org, which helped craft some of the legislation proposed in 2013. “There’s too much gun control now, as far as we’re concerned. We feel that we should be able to defend ourselves any place we go.”

Meanwhile, critics are puzzled by the urgency of the latest effort to increase the presence of firearms, and the timing (in the wake of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.).

“I think we should support reasonable gun legislation,” says Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “But for some reason, the tide is turning on even the most reasonable protections against gun violence, and I don’t believe that’s the right direction for this city, this state or this country.”

The man at my local gun store isn’t interested in what Mayor Reed thinks because right now he’s got a point to make with me.

“You take this business card to some places I know in Kentucky, like you done here, and they’ll put a gun on you, escort you out the door,” he says, as a matter of fact, because he’s spent a lot of time in Kentucky.

And I say, trying to match his good-natured tone, “Well, it wouldn’t be the first time someone aimed a gun at me.”

It was two guns actually, pointed at my chest from a few feet away, because police officers are trained to aim at the largest center of mass on a human body. Fortunately, the officers weren’t looking for me. I happened to be opening the back door of my family’s print shop when they happened to be looking for an escaped convict who had shot and killed a local preacher. My experience staring down the menacing maw of eternity is the American experience, because we are a nation of guns, gun owners and potential gun victims.

Missed Target

More than two-dozen gun-related bills were filed during the 2013 session. The two biggies, Senate Bill 101 and House Bill 512, went down to the wire (the ‘campus carry’ provision was the sticking point). They didn’t survive the session, but you can bet your last bullet that they’ll be back in some form or fashion in the 2014 session that begins next month.

“Some kind of strong gun legislation is coming up again,” promises State Rep. John Meadows (R-Calhoun), chairman of the Rules Committee, and a chief sponsor of HB 512 (the Safe Carry Protection Act).

“I thought it was a good bill, but if it could be made more palatable to the other side, that might be something we’ll look at,” adds Meadows, who carries a little Ruger pistol in his back pocket. “But if my name is on it, I want it to be good legislation, not just something that’ll flare up and make everybody talk.”

Opponents of ‘campus carry’ talked plenty last session, from grassroots advocacy groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense to the University System of Georgia (USG), whose chancellor, Hank Huckaby (a former legislator) told lawmakers, “adding loaded weapons to an already potentially volatile mix of youthful exuberance, stress, and yes, at times alcohol and other factors, could lead to a tragedy of our own making that we could otherwise avoid.”

That was in March. Even with such widespread opposition to the campus carry concept, HB 512 received overwhelming support by House Republicans and made it as far as the Senate’s Judiciary Non-Civil Committee before time ran out on the session. By September, the entire public university system had developed a case of self-imposed laryngitis, underlying the sensitive political nature of the hot-blooded, often emotional issue of gun rights.

“At this time, we will not be making any statements or comments regarding this subject,” came the response from USG spokesman John Milsaps to an interview request. It was the same “no comment” from every university we contacted except one.

“We are committed to providing a safe education and work environment for our students, faculty and staff,” says Bonita Jacobs, president of the University of North Georgia. “We believe the law as currently written best achieves that.”

One officially-gagged university spokesperson who did not want to be identified says, “we’ve been told by the University System not to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole.”

Georgia State University administrators did not respond to repeated requests for an interview, but a number of GSU customers did.

“I think it’s a bad idea, because there are people that can buy guns that don’t really know how to use them,” says Angelica Currens, a GSU senior with a double major in psychology and criminal justice. “You have to take a test to get a driver’s license, but you’re not required to get any training for a gun, which can potentially be more dangerous, and that bothers me.”

Ollie Hudgins and his mom Jennifer have a different point of view. “Crime is on and around my campus, so knowing that there could be qualified and licensed gun-owners nearby makes me feel safer,” he says. Under the campus carry provision, only students who are at least 21 with a Georgia Weapons Carry License (it costs about $80 and part of that is for a G.B.I. background check) would be allowed to pack heat at school.

“College students are adults that have the rights of any other adult,” says Jennifer Hudgins. “College is not a bubble and we are not doing them any favors by treating them as children and protecting them from the outside world. The right to carry a concealed weapon should be theirs if they are willing to go through the responsible, legal steps to obtain the proper license.”

Vicki White Warneke has two daughters at GSU, one who witnessed a gun death on campus, a drug deal that turned violent. “More guns on campus is not the answer,” she says. “There are so many people these days with anger issues and no common sense. I would hate to see what happens if and when someone who is carrying gets pissed off.”

So, the current gun laws survived another year, and the Meadows crowd circled the wagons to discuss what form their legislation might take in 2014. Don’t be surprised if ‘campus carry’ is axed, which makes sense to State Rep. Scott Holcomb.

“You had universal opposition to the extension of gun rights on college campuses,” says Holcomb (D-Atlanta), who spoke against HB 512 on the Capitol floor. “You had a group of Democrats and Republicans who think reasonable restrictions are appropriate. “But you also had a core group of ardent Republicans who believe guns should be allowed virtually anywhere at anytime for anyone under any circumstance whatsoever. That isn’t logical and it can’t be justified.”

Deadly Aim

April 16, 2007 is branded on Brenda Kendrick’s broken heart. That’s the day Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech, shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the university campus.

“My niece was killed that day, in French class. Austin Michelle Cloyd. She was my younger brother’s daughter, a freshman. It was a week before her 19th birthday,” says Kendrick, who is a school psychologist for the White County School District in Northeast Georgia. “I’d never really thought about the gun issue before.”

That day changed her perspective, but it was the Newtown massacre a year ago that inspired her to take action. The day after the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, an Indiana woman named Shannon Watts started a Facebook page called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which has since become a non-profit modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Kendrick  joined immediately.

With chapters in all 50 states, Moms Demand Action is targeting state and federal lawmakers, companies and educational institutions to establish what it considers common-sense gun reforms, such as background checks for all gun and ammo purchases, restricting military-style weapons and ammo, establishing product safety oversight of guns and ammo.

“Teddy bears are more regulated than guns, they have to meet consumer health and safety standards, but guns don’t,” Kendrick says. But teddy bears don’t have quite the lobbying power that guns do. Guns are big business in the U.S. (a $33 billion industry supporting about 220,000 jobs). They are also prevalent (about 300,000 Georgians with permits to carry handguns; about 300 million guns in the U.S., and the number rises about 4 million a year, according to the NRA).

And deadly: there are about 32,000 gun deaths a year in the U.S., approximately the same as the number of traffic deaths (although two thirds of the gun deaths are suicides). But for some, the very idea of “gun control” is intolerable. The NRA is the fattest cat on this side, shelling out about $3 million a year on federal lobbying efforts (and a reported $25 million during the 2012 election cycle) to oppose such things as restrictions on assault weapons or the registration of firearms. In response to several requests for an interview, an NRA spokesperson finally sent this comment via email: “NRA is working closely with legislators and Second Amendment advocates across Georgia to benefit law abiding gun owners in the upcoming 2014 legislative session.”

Veteran lawman Sheriff Sills was a bit more lucid, and firm, saying flatly, “I am not in favor of gun control,” adding, “The term ‘assault rifle’ is just bogus hyperbole. It is meaningless. The problem isn’t the gun, it’s the person holding the gun.”

He bases his opinion on four decades of blood-stained experience. “I have seen every kind of carnage there is. I carried a person’s foot in my pocket once. I’m desensitized because I’m supposed to be. I’ve been doing this for 40 years,” he says. “But dear God, I really believe we have become desensitized as a people, all these violent movies and games and what’s available on the Internet for young people. When we played cops and robbers as kids, we never saw somebody’s head blown off. Kids today, by the time they’re 16 they’ve seen so much gory stuff.”

So, it isn’t the guns, he says. The problems, in addition to the breakdown of the American family, include a disintegrating system to treat the mentally ill, and a broken criminal justice system. “Its a five year sentence for a person to possess a firearm if they are a convicted felon. If you carry a firearm in the commission of crime, that carries a 10 year sentence,” he says. “But those firearm charges are usually the first thing that gets chipped away in a plea negotiation. If we wanted to send a message and stop people from committing crimes with guns, we have laws to do it.”

Sills cites example after example of recidivist criminals who commit violent acts, such as the murder last year (a few days after the Newtown massacre) of a Clayton County police officer, who was reportedly shot to death by a man with a history of gun-related convictions who was out of prison on parole.

Of course, none of that can fill the loss or ease the pain Kendrick and her family feels, so they continue advocating for what they consider common-sense gun laws that also protect Second Amendment rights, which is exactly what Mark Rosenberg and his former arch enemy are trying to do.

In 1983, Rosenberg went to the CDC to help establish the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, with the idea of applying a public health approach to studying violent injury, which was a leading cause of death for young people (ages 1 to 44). In particular, they wanted to take a close look at the rising number of firearm deaths with the goal of prevention in mind. So, they researched the underlying causes of gun violence.

The researchers uncovered some useful information, such as the likelihood of being shot and killed in your home is significantly greater if you have a firearm in your home, which is a no-brainer. Some of the numbers were inflated, and have since been adjusted (instead of 43 times more likely, you’re three times as likely to be shot and killed if you’ve got a gun in your home), and the methodology of the study was questioned by criminologists and other scientists, but more importantly, by the powerful NRA. The NRA had an influential front man in Congressman Jay Dickey (R-Arkansas), who led the fight to shut down the CDC’s research into gun violence, which is exactly what happened. That was in 1996, when Rosenberg and Dickey couldn’t imagine occupying the same room together without an eruption. Something else happened instead.

“He came to my office one day, when things had subsided a little,” says Dickey, who is retired now.

“We talked about our children, discovered we struggled with some of the same things as parents, got to know each other and became friends,” Rosenberg says.

They kept a dialogue going, and last year they co-wrote an editorial that appeared in the Washington Post calling for more research, from a public health perspective, into gun violence. According to the editorial, since 1996, “the United States has spent about $240 million a year on traffic safety research, but there has been almost no publicly funded research on firearm injuries. As a consequence, U.S. scientists cannot answer the most basic question: What works to prevent firearm injuries?”

For Rosenberg and for the gun-toting masses, the Second Amendment is nigh on sacrosanct (but it clearly doesn’t give me the right to carry any weapon I want in any manner I choose for any purpose). He doesn’t want my gun (I only have one, an old .22 rifle) and probably doesn’t want yours. This isn’t a black or white, all or none issue.

“It isn’t legal in our country to take guns away from law abiding citizens. That would be totally unconstitutional,” Rosenberg says. “We don’t know if registration and licensing would make a difference. We don’t know if restricting access for people adjudicated mentally ill would make a difference. We haven’t done the research.

“So, we have two goals – reduce firearm injuries and protect the rights of legitimate gun owners. That’s what Jay and I agree on. You can do both,” he says. “You can do both.”

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