Consider the Alternative

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By Jesse Duthrie

The “NO STRAW PURCHASING” sign is big and the letters are printed in capital bold letters. It’s attached to the wall and plainly visible within seconds of walking in Hoffman’s Guns in Newington, one of the largest and most popular gun stores in Connecticut. For someone like
me, taking his first visit into one of these shops, less than one hundred dollars in my pocket, only window shopping for the day yet with a new NRA safe shooter-license, I pay the sign no head and am instantly more allured to the glass cases with flashy 9mms, .45s, the exotic Desert Eagle 50 calibers, the shelves aligned with 12 gauge tactical shotguns, and AR-15s. I know very little, only what I’ve learned in the condensed five hour course and the twenty rounds or so rounds I’ve dispersed at the shooting range to complete my certificate, and even with my NRA certificate I still would have to wait the two week waiting period to purchase a weapon. I ask questions to the shop owners, handle a few pistols, and walk out the door. I still do not know what “NO STRAW PURCHASING” means. This is June 2012.

I haven’t walked into Hoffman’s since that afternoon, on account of putting off getting my license until I had the time and patience to go through the process (which, as any gun licensee will tell you, is expensive and laborious). Since December 14 I see the grey building, amid the Berlin turnpike traffic, at least once a week on local news. It began slowly at first; the media pondering how legislative bodies and anti-gun lobbyist groups would react in the wake of the horrific Sandy Hook shooting. But within a month it became clear that legislation would move towards the banning of assault weapons. With this brought more camera crews outside the streets of Hoffman’s, where camera men and women stood in the frigid New England winter, their condensation foretelling that testimonials of Sandy Hook families, anti-gun lobbyists, and senior politicians could very well put an end to assault weapon sales in stores like the one they stood behind.

The entire state of Connecticut worked itself into a panic and a debate simultaneously; NRA members and gun advocates, as well as people who deemed gun legislation “unconstitutional,” testified and rallied against the proposed notion of banning weapons. Emotionally painful testimony was given by parents of children lost at Sandy Hook in favor of passing legislation. Marches were held by the thousands in favor of legislation one day, only to be superceded by their opponent the next. Nothing had been put on paper, not a bill nor proposition, and already the state was divided.

It was around this time that ulterior gun-related legislation started to make headway. It had seemed that the horror of Sandy Hook had prompted Connecticut citizens into demanding the boldest legislation possible. But, ultimately, with the civic outcry from opponents (e.g. NRA, conservatives, etc.) there might be other, more subtle tacts to take.

Of these new proposed ideas was the increase in penalties for straw purchasing. Straw purchasing is the illegal firearm purchase of a weapon where a proxy buyer purchases a gun from a gun store, then sells that weapon second hand to somebody who, otherwise, would not be able to buy that gun at the original gun store (due to circumstances of required background check).

The National Sports and Shooting Foundation (NSSF) is the key watchdog of Straw Purchasing in the United States. In a campaign with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the NSSF established the “Don’t Lie to the Other Guy” campaign in 2000 to “better educate America’s firearms retailers on how to detect would-be buyers and raise public awareness that it is a serious crime to buy a firearm for a prohibited person or for someone who does now otherwise want his or her name associated with the transaction.” The operation between the NSSF and the ATF is a balance between the two agencies. The ATF identifies key cities they think could benefit most from the campaign, while the NSSF goes into to each city, disperses “training materials on identifying straw purchasers,” and leads a public awareness campaign through the city to alert the public of the severness and consequences of straw purchasing.

So, as new-gun legislation brewed in Connecticut, the question became “How would straw purchasing legislation affect Connecticut citizens?” A call for more stringent penalties on straw purchasing could deter crime, stop the process itself, and ease the minds of those affected by the Sandy Hook shooting. But it’s a national policy, and legislation would go through D.C., not Hartford. Reported in a March 5 New Haven Register article, both Connecticut Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal backed anti-gun legislation that would put severe penalties on straw purchases on guns. The new bill is called the “Stop Illegal Trafficking in Firearms Act of 2013” and the “Leahy Bill.” Both senators are pushing for penalties as severe as 20 to 30 years. Blumenthal remarked, “The measure goes to the core of many cases of gun violence.”

What’s interesting about this bill is the amount of bipartisan support it’s drumming up in its early stages. Monitoring straw purchasing at the state level is difficult, Murphy says, because different states have different laws pertaining to gun laws. Therefore, “If you want to want to give them the necessary tools you can’t do it at a state by state level, you have to do it at a federal level.” What comes as a surprise is how soft the penalties have been for those arrested for straw purchasing. Though the maximum, as stated earlier, is 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the actual punishments handed out have been less severe. In the same Register article, Murphy claims that “onethird of convicted people don’t serve jail time” and “another third serve less than two years.”

In the week preceding April 4, people seemingly forgot alternatives to banning assault weapons, because no longer was the ban an abstract notion or a plea from parents of slain children or a political motive from a lobbyist agency or a politician with a microphone standing outside a tall building with monstrous columns; there was actual legislation written down on paper and, with the right sway of words, the right momentum of opinion, the outweighing of yea’s to nea’s, Connecticut would be the first state in the country to outwardly ban assault weapons and seemingly begin the first of many inevitably changes in gun policy that had been preordained since December 14.

On the day before the vote, I watched the six o’clock news. The top story on Channel 8 took place outside of Hoffman’s guns, where pretaped from earlier that day showed the various full parking and people walking down the everbusy Berlin Turnpike to get a chance to get inside the store. It was like Black Friday, except without the discounts. I had heard earlier that gun sales on assault weapons were skyrocketing, but I had to see it to believe it. Secondary interviews were conducted with men all sadly aware that, yes, this bill was probably going to pass, and that they, the NRA card carrying men they were, were not responsible for any crimes in this state, and that yes, this bill is ridiculous and non-preventative of gun violence. More footage of men walking out the store with long brown boxes slung under their arms, trudging down the Berlin turnpike to walk whatever distance they walked to get to the store, in their minds knowing that this is the end of an era for gun ownership in this state. Foreseeably in this country.

The vote passed on April sixth, and Connecticut became the first state in the Union to ban assault weapons. Press coverage that day both praised and rejected the vote; some saw it as progressive, while others saw it as a defamation of Constitution rights.

But the most straightforward and perhaps politically non-invested testimony came from the Jimmy Greene and Nelba Marquez-Greene, parents of slain child Ana Marquez- Green, in a 60 Minutes interview that was conducted before the vote but aired the day after. When asked by 60 Minutes host Scot Pelley asked for their thoughts on banning assault weapons, both answers were humble and telling of the legislation process that had just preceded the following four months.

“At first, [banning assault weapons] was where my heart was.” Ana Marquez-Green said. “‘We’ve gotta get…a huge bonfire and burn everything. Let’s burn all these damn guns.’ I have learned that it’s a more complex issue than just saying, “Let’s ban assault weapons.” We’re looking for real change and common sense solutions. Not things that sound good.”

Her husband, Jimmy Green, responded by saying, “When we talk ban and confiscate we- it becomes a political argument. It’s so much bigger than a political debate…I believe, in my humble opinion, this all transcends that.”

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