Shut the gun-show loophole

Shut the gun-show loophole

December 19th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

It's hard to imagine that Gov. Bill Haslam honestly believes what he said Monday when he was asked, in the aftermath of the massacre of 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school, if Tennessee's gun laws are tough enough. He said, wrongly, that Tennessee's gun laws don't need fixing. Then he added, with equal duplicity, that Tennessee's only problem, if any, is the paucity of mental health care for potential shooters, a service he already has slashed.

There's no question about Haslam's chutzpah. He surely is aware of the gun-show loophole in Tennessee that's big enough to drive a truckload of assault weapons through. As do some other states, Tennessee still allows anyone of legal age -- criminals, gunrunners and straw-purchasers included -- to walk into a wide-open, public gun show and buy a semi-automatic rifle or handgun and high-capacity bullet magazines without a background check. They can just pay cash, no questions asked, and walk out.

So we have to wonder if, rather than being heartless, Gov. Haslam is just kissing up to the National Rifle Association and its death-grip -- we used that term advisedly -- on Tennessee lawmakers who cross it. Or if he has just perfected a comedian's deadpan timing for delivering a lame punchline while masking his true feelings about a deplorable status-quo.

In any case, no one is laughing at his response.

Not parents, whose children may be vulnerable to some deranged death-dealing gunman who might invade their school or the theater they patronize on a weekend with their friends.

Not state Rep. Debra Maggart, the exiting chairwoman of the Republican caucus in the Tennessee House and a lifetime NRA member. She was defeated in the November elections by NRA spending against her, as an example of its power, after she opposed the NRA's push last session for an expanded right for gun owners to bring their weapons on workplace and state college parking lots in Tennessee, never mind that employers and the state's academic and police officials strongly oppose such a law.

The family of Chattanooga Police Sgt. Tim Chapin can't be laughing over Haslam's witless remark, either. Sgt. Chapin was shot to death last year by a Colorado fugitive, an escaped felon, who after a botched robbery at a Brainerd Road pawn shop was running for his car, where he had stowed a M-4 assault rifle. He had bought that assault weapon just a few days earlier at the R.K. Gun Show in Chattanooga without having to pass a background check that, had it been run, would have shown him to be an escaped felon wanted for fresh armed robbery charges in Colorado.

In fact, Matthews bought the M-4 assault rifle at the gun show from a part-time, unofficial and unlicensed gun dealer, Kevin Dawson. He could have paid Dawson cash for the gun. Instead, he traded three handguns he had stolen in Colorado. Dawson, of course, didn't know Matthews was wanted by Colorado authorities, because, thanks to Tennessee's gun-show loophole, he didn't have to run a background check for the sale. Nor was he interested, even if it were possible, to run a check on the handguns to see if they had been stolen.

Dawson, federal charges subsequently showed, was accustomed to posing as a private seller while, in actuality, he bought and sold guns regularly at weekly gun shows, and out of his car trunk. Were Tennessee's gun laws toughened pertaining to gun shows and private sellers and buyers, and federal laws on gun registration and manufacturers' inventories made more stringent, this sewer of gun sales to criminals could be stanched.

But that would take diligent focus and committed reform of gun laws. Gov. Haslam just isn't interested. As he said Monday, the only thing that bothers him and state government at the moment is how to keep both the NRA and private companies happy at the same time. That's impossible. The former is relentless in its effort to legalize private gun-carry by employees onto private employers' parking lots. Employers just as vigorously oppose the intrusion of guns on their private property, and for good reason: the prospect of an employee becoming another enraged worker who grabs a gun out of his car and murders his colleagues.

There's an obvious dividing line at stake over employers' private property interests and those of the NRA's dangerous agenda. Haslam should easily see the broader parallel of the threat to public safety etched in the gun-show loophole. Tennessee, and other state governments, surely need to close the loophole, which casually provides guns to criminals and, potentially, any demented soul considering massacre innocents.