This year, threats against Members of Congress are up 300%. According to the FBI, “The suspects [responsible for the threats] are mostly men who own guns, and several had been treated for mental illness.” Equally striking is that several of the legislators that have been threatened are ardent advocates for weak gun laws that allow dangerous, mentally incapacitated individuals to obtain firearms with little difficulty.
Case in point is U.S. Representative Heath Shuler, a Democrat from North Carolina’s 11th District. Shuler received a message on his office voicemail on February 5, 2009 in which the caller stated, “If you vote for that [economic] stimulus package, I’m gonna’ kill you. Simple as that.” An FBI investigation traced the call and found out that it was made by John Jackson Adams, a 70-year-old North Carolina resident with a “history of mental illness and a cache of guns.” When FBI agents confronted Adams, he admitted making the call and explained, “I was trying to work the political scene.”
Adams was charged with threatening to kill a federal official, a felony offense punishable by up to ten years in prison. After a psychiatric evaluation, however, a North Carolina court declared Adams “mentally incompetent” and the charges were dropped on the grounds that he was not fit to stand trial. His current whereabouts are unknown to the public.
Shuler has told the media he was badly shaken by the incident. “You get a threat like that, and you start to rethink your priorities,” he said.
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His newly reorganized priorities, however, seem bizarre in light of what he went through. For starters, Shuler obtained concealed handgun permits for himself and his wife. In doing so, he ignored a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last year that showed that carrying a gun makes you more than four times as likely to be shot.
His next move was even more puzzling. Shuler became one of the few Democrats to appear at the National Rifle Association’s 2010 annual convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Clearly proud of his A-rating from the gun lobby, Shuler bragged to the NRA faithful that there “isn’t another Member of Congress that buys more ammunition in a year” than he does. He also fondly recalled hunting wild hogs with his young son and boasted, “it just wasn’t any gun...it was his own AR he was using,” referring to a semiautomatic version of the military’s M-16 rifle. “Keep up your good work,” he encouraged the NRA leadership.
That work, however, has not always focused on the interests of responsible, law-abiding gun owners. The NRA seems to be equally concerned with preserving the “rights” of criminals, the mentally ill, and other individuals who are prohibited under federal law from buying guns.
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For starters, the NRA filed lawsuits in nine states challenging the “Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act” after it was signed into law in 1994. The Brady Law established a mandate for background checks to be conducted on all sales of firearms by federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) in the country. The NRA claimed that its only issue with the Brady Bill was the five-day waiting period the original bill created for handgun purchasers (which was phased out in 1998 following the introduction of an instant computer background check system), but contradicted themselves when they asked the Supreme Court to void the entire Brady Law. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not compel states to submit records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), but otherwise left the law intact. The result, however, is a NICS system that is missing millions of state records that should disqualify dangerous individuals from purchasing guns.
The NRA also created a loophole that allows private individuals to sell firearms without conducting background checks of any kind. In 1986, the NRA-drafted McClure-Volkmer Act (aka “Firearms Owners Protection Act”) established that parties “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms are exempt from the background check requirement. A national survey by the Department of Justice found that approximately 40% of gun purchases occur through unlicensed sellers. Who exactly is buying guns in this manner? We don’t know—there is no paper trail for law enforcement to follow.
Finally, the NRA is currently urging the passage of the “Burr Amendment,” which would allow veterans deemed “mentally incompetent” by the Department of Veterans Affairs to purchase firearms. The proposed amendment requires a court ruling before a veteran can be placed in NICS, but without establishing a mechanism for such a ruling to occur. This is particularly disturbing given recent reports about the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the efforts of anti-government extremists to recruit returning veterans.
The NRA itself is certainly no friend of government. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has declared that “the people have a right to take whatever measures necessary—including force—to abolish oppressive government.” Specifically, the NRA has opined that the Second Amendment gives American citizens the right to take violent action when they deem their government has become “tyrannical.” “The guys with the guns make the rules,” LaPierre tells us. Is this not the same insurrectionist mentality that John Jackson Adams embraced when he threatened Shuler’s life because of his anger over the stimulus bill?
Does Shuler not understand that the NRA’s polices make it easier for deranged individuals to obtain guns? Does he not grasp that the gun lobby’s leadership is providing intellectual and constitutional “cover” for such individuals to respond violently to their grievances with government?
It’s one thing to put your constituents’ safety at risk for endorsements, PAC funding, and votes; but another altogether to put your own family on the firing line. Recently, another A-rated, NRA-backed politician asked, “What line will we not cross for the NRA? At what point do we say, ‘That’s too much’?”
Apparently, no line we’ve seen yet—even when self-preservation is at stake.