As Congress Moves To Act, NY Times Highlights Dangerous NRA Priorities

November 15, 2011 8:51 am ET — Chris Brown

Today, two very different gun-related bills are being considered by Congress. A hearing is scheduled for the Fix Gun Checks Act in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, while at roughly the same time the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act is expected to be voted on by House of Representatives.

The Fix Gun Checks Act would require a background check for every gun sale and facilitate getting into the background check system all mental health records that would prohibit gun ownership. The National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act would force states to accept permits to carry concealed guns from any other state no matter how dangerously weak standards are in that state. States would no longer have the power to decide who can carry concealed guns within their borders. Any state's loopholes and lax standards could be exploited by people all across the nation, as has already been documented in Philadelphia, where 900 residents have used a reciprocity agreement with Florida to get around Pennsylvania's standards.

On Sunday, the New York Times published an article investigating the process that convicted felons use to get their gun rights restored and shining light on dangerous loopholes already in existence. The cases examined also show some of the possible effects of both Fix Gun Checks and National Right-To-Carry.

Every year, thousands of felons that by law are barred from owning a gun successfully apply to have their gun rights restored. Thanks to a longstanding lobby effort by the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment Foundation, in many states it's easy to get your gun rights restored even if you've committed serious violent crimes. As the Times' Michael Luo documents, the outcome of this process is too often tragic:

Since 1995, more than 3,300 felons and people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors have regained their gun rights in the state — 430 in 2010 alone — according to the analysis of data provided by the state police and the court system. Of that number, more than 400 — about 13 percent — have subsequently committed new crimes, the analysis found. More than 200 committed felonies, including murder, assault in the first and second degree, child rape and drive-by shooting.

One particularly shocking case examined was Erik Zettergren of Washington state. Zettergren had been twice convicted of felonies and mental health professionals had found he was severely mentally ill, but he was able get his gun rights restored and obtain a permit to carry a concealed gun in 2005. Months later, Zettergren shot and killed a man at point-blank range, for which he was convicted of second-degree murder.

If National Right-To-Carry had been law then, Zettergren could have legally carried a concealed gun in 49 states. By contrast, Fix Gun Checks would make sure that someone who is dangerously mentally ill and legally prohibited from buying a gun would always be included in the background check database. As of January, over one million records of mental illness had not been added to the background system. Zettergren's mental health background is exactly the sort of information that supporters of Fix Gun Checks hope to document.   

It's quite a contrast. In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer (NY), Daniel Akaka (HI), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), and John Kerry (MA) are pushing to close loopholes, while in the House, 212 Republicans and 34 Democrats are pushing to lower the standards to carry a concealed gun.

The Times also documented the case of Charles Hairston, who had his gun rights restored and holds a concealed carry permit:

Mr. Hairston was 17 in January 1971, when he shot a man to death in Winston-Salem, N.C. Mr. Hairston and a group of neighborhood toughs had been preparing to rob a local grocery store when the owner, Charles Minor, 55, closed up and headed for his car. [...]

Mr. Hairston spent 18 years in prison before being released on parole in 1989. He moved to Cleveland and started working in heating and cooling, a trade he had learned behind bars. [...]

In 1995, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge for allegedly grabbing and pushing his wife.

More seriously, later that year he was indicted on 60 counts of rape, felonious sexual penetration and gross sexual imposition; prosecutors charged that he had forced sex upon his stepdaughter, starting when she was 12. He was acquitted of the most serious charges and convicted only of corruption of a minor for one encounter at a motel for which prosecutors were able to provide corroborating evidence beyond the girl's detailed testimony. [...]

In the end, the judge, Hollie L. Gallagher, granted his petition without comment.

Soon after the judge's ruling, Mr. Hairston obtained a concealed weapons permit from a neighboring county and bought a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun.