Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mischief lurks in closed concealed carry records

Guns are not the only things that will be hidden from the public under Wisconsin’s concealed carry law. Any information about the license holder – name, age, residence – will also be secret. That concealment will hamper the ability of the public to monitor the law.
Investigative work by the Los Angeles Times showed that, despite being barred from owning firearms, hundreds of convicted criminals, including rapists and armed robbers, received concealed-carry licenses in Texas, and many then proceeded to commit more crimes, ranging from drunken driving to murder.
Will outlaws likewise get licenses in Wisconsin? Keeping license holders secret will make it tough for the public, including news organizations, to check.
The National Rifle Association has been wildly successful in their campaign to get state legislatures across the country to enact concealed carry laws. In only nine states in the 1980s were you legally able to carry a pistol in your pocket either without a license or with a license that must be given merely for the asking. Now you can do so in 40 states. At the same time, the number of states that completely bar concealed carry has dropped from 15 to 2. Make that one. The Wisconsin Legislature has sent Gov. Scott Walker a concealed carry bill, which he is sure to sign, leaving Illinois as the sole holdout.
The NRA insists on inserting into these laws provisions keeping the records secret, and Wisconsin lawmakers happily obliged. Although all other licenses the state issues – for motorists, barbers, lawyers, dentists, hunters, day care providers and so forth – are open to public inspection, records on concealed carry licenses will be sealed.
Even police officers in hot pursuit of a suspect are barred from asking the state whether the guy they’re after has a license to carry a gun, which, of course, he could use against them. (Only should he produce a license once they nab him will officers be able to check with the state whether the license is authentic.)
Reasons the pro-gun forces give for the secrecy are far-fetched, as illustrated by Richard Pearson of the Illinois State Rifle Association: "Once this information is released, it will be distributed to street gangs and gun-control groups, who will use the data to target gun owners for crime and harassment.” Note that this fantastic argument runs counter to the gun lobby’s own rationale for the unfettered right to firearms. Gun possession makes you safer.
The real reason the NRA insists on keeping concealed-carry records secret is likely that their release could spoil the narrative the organization spouts (as put by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence): Good people with guns prevent harm from bad people with guns.
The hard truth the NRA doesn’t want you to know is that some bad people will get the licenses, too, which they will sometimes use to wreak havoc. To keep that secret, the Legislature has shamelessly turned its back on Wisconsin's tradition of open records.

Negative news

The likely purpose of keeping concealed carry records secret is to cut down on the bad press concealed carry gets from time to time. Here’s a sampling of such press. All the gun wielders here boasted concealed carry licenses:

“The mixture of guns and alcohol exploded at a Lynchburg restaurant Saturday night when a customer accidentally shot himself in the thigh with a concealed weapon.” Lynchburg (VA) News & Advance ,

“One Indiana man pressed the barrel of a loaded handgun into the chest of a woman holding her 1-year-old son. Another's handgun was confiscated by police three times – twice for shooting in public. … And in all of these cases – and hundreds of other questionable ones uncovered by The Indianapolis Star – the Indiana State Police granted [the gunmen’s request to carry concealed handguns]. Even worse, many of those people committed subsequent crimes, some with the guns they were legally permitted to carry.” Indianapolis Star,  Oct. 11, 2009

“Houston police said Richard Calderon, 24, hit the teen's mother's car at about 8:20 p.m. Wednesday and then left the scene. The mother … tried to catch up to the vehicle to get its license plate number. As she drove by … , Calderon fired shots at her car, police said. Alexis Wiley, 13, was shot in the head. She was taken to Memorial Hermann Hospital, where she died a few hours later.” KPRC Local 2, Houston, March 5, 2010.

“Jacksonville police said a woman was killed Monday afternoon by what appears to be the accidental discharge of a concealed firearm. Police said a man with a concealed weapons permit went into the Allied Veterans Cyber Center Internet café … Police said the man's gun was mishandled or dropped and discharged, striking a woman in the back. Witnesses said the gun fell from the man's belt.” News4,  Oct. 19, 2009.

“Federal investigators have searched the home of a North Carolina terrorism suspect, seizing counterterrorism literature, ammunition and portable electronics. A search warrant released Wednesday shows agents searched the home of Anes Subasic….The warrant says Subasic had a concealed handgun permit. Agents reported taking boxes of ammunition, knives and an empty box for a 'super sniper' rifle scope. Subasic is one of eight North Carolina suspects accused of plotting international terrorism.” Associated Press, Sept. 30, 2009.

For many more such stories, see the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. For an overview of crimes committed by concealed carry license holders, check out the Violence Policy Center.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

My brush with food stamp fraud

I was tempted with welfare fraud some while back. I was putting my groceries in the trunk of my car outside the old Uptown Supermarket on North Ave. in Milwaukee, when a young woman with a cartload of bagged groceries asked me for a ride.

“I’ll give you $10 in food stamps,” she said.

I gave her the ride, but rejected the stamps – and thereby avoided a crime. It is illegal to exchange food stamps except for the purchase of food, as an exposé in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes.

Actually, her offer wasn’t much of a temptation. She was plainly needy – sufficient reason to give her a ride. It’s one of the Beatitudes, I believe.

From U.S. Department of Agriculture
Still, I couldn’t help but think that, had I been broke myself with no job in sight – the plight of a whole bunch of people – I doubtless would have accepted the food stamps, middle-class morality be damned. (He who has never fudged on his 1040, cast the first stone.) In fact, I might have hung around the store’s parking lot giving rides for cash or food stamps to people with lots of groceries and no cars.

Which is why I find it hard to get worked up over the Journal Sentinel’s blockbuster story finding that nine people in Milwaukee and 70 nationwide were using Facebook to buy or sell food assistance benefits illegally. The people caught in the newspaper’s dragnet apparently lacked the sophistication to deploy a privacy shield over such transactions – an option Facebook gives them.

My brush with food stamp fraud preceded the Internet’s social networks, which have expanded the reach of people seeking to buy or sell the coupons. So maybe real big-time crime is now afoot. What’s more, the Journal Sentinel (where I spent most of my journalism career) has been doing superb exposés of late. Still, I find it hard to work up outrage over this particular peek at a struggle for survival on the part of poor people.

I don’t know whether my passenger knew that she was proposing to break the law. But she was in a bind. She lived close enough to the store to walk there, but had too many groceries to walk back. She knew she would need a ride, so she frugally reserved enough of her precious food stamps to pay for it.

Though she was ready to break the law, she looked more like a mom struggling to make ends meet than a crook.