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Durbin hearing cites gun violence in Chicago, East St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 12, 2013 - WASHINGTON – Gun violence in Chicago and East St. Louis were among the topics of discussion at a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday on the need to strengthen federal gun laws in a way that does not conflict with the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

With more than 100 relatives of gun violence victims looking on – including family members of four Illinois victims and several from the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. – U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said that simply enforcing existing gun laws “is not enough” to deter such shootings, and he argued that stricter gun laws are both needed and constitutional.

“Americans all across the country are now saying: Enough. We’ve reached a tipping point,” said Durbin, D-Ill., who chaired the hearing of his Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution. “We need to act. We need to better protect our kids and our loved ones from the epidemic of gun violence.”

The hearing examined several legislative proposals seeking to curb gun violence, including universal FBI background checks for gun sales; tougher laws against straw purchasing and gun trafficking; stopping the flow of new military-style assault weapons; and limiting the capacity of new gun ammo magazines.

But the panel's ranking Republican, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argued that such bills – with the possible exception of tougher laws against illegal gun trafficking – are not needed and would, in some cases, make it harder for law-abiding Americans to defend themselves. He pointed out that five of the U.S. cities with the highest per-capita murder rate had strict gun laws.

At the opposite end of the debate, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the main sponsor of a bill backed by at least 20 senators that would reinstate the ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines, said the mayors of 850 cities are backing her legislation, which she argued was clearly constitutional.

“The assault weapons ban of 1994-2004 was never struck down by any court,” Feinstein said.

Other witnesses argued for tougher background checks. Daniel W. Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, said a 2004 study found that nearly 8 in 10 prisoners who had committed gun-related crimes had gotten their firearms from unlicensed private sellers – transactions that don’t require background checks.

“Laws such as background check requirements for all gun sales will help law enforcement combat illegal gun trafficking and keep guns from prohibited individuals,” Webster said.

Witness cites gun violence in East St. Louis

In his statement, Durbin mentioned several Chicago killings and a fatal shooting at an East St. Louis club last September – with three young men killed and two others wounded – among a litany of gun violence across the country.

“It is heartbreaking. But it keeps happening,” said Durbin. “In a park in Chicago and a nightclub in East St. Louis. In a movie theater in Aurora and a shopping center in Tucson. In a temple in Oak Creek and a military base in Texas. In college lecture halls in DeKalb and Blacksburg, and in first grade classrooms in Newtown.”

U.S. Attorney Timothy J. Heaphy, who represented the U.S. Department of Justice in his testimony, also mentioned the intensity of gun violence in East St. Louis and recent police and prosecutorial efforts to contain it.

Heaphy told the panel there has been “a spike in gun prosecutions” in East St. Louis in recent months “because state and local prosecutors came together and said, ‘We’ve got to do something about crime in East St. Louis.’”

In an interview, Heaphy told the Beacon that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, Stephen R. Wigginton, had helped coordinate the East St. Louis project as part of the nationwide Project Safe Neighborhoods program www.justice.gov/usao/ils/Programs/PSN.html -- which takes a comprehensive approach to reducing gun violence. An essential element of that is building partnerships with state and local police and targeting repeat violent offenders.

“The attorney general told us to identify places that have persistent levels of violent crime, bring together federal, state and local agents, and start a comprehensive enforcement and prevention effort,” said Heaphy.

He said Wigginton “has ramped up his prosecution of repeat violent offenders in East St. Louis, and our gun case numbers in East St. Louis are up pretty dramatically from where they were a few years ago.”

In the most recent arrest under the program, a 29-year-old East St. Louis man pled guilty in Federal District Court to Unlawful Possession of a Firearm by a Previously Convicted Felon. The man faces a maximum potential sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Are strict gun laws constitutional?

Several Republicans on the subcommittee questioned whether strict gun control laws are effective and whether some of the proposals might violate the Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms.

“Stripping the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens does nothing to stop criminals" from committing violent acts, argued Cruz, a former Texas prosecutor. He said such rights must be protected “not just when they're popular, but especially when passions are seeking to restrict and limit those rights.”

But Harvard Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe told the panel that none of the gun-related initiatives proposed by the Obama administration “even comes close to violating the Second Amendment.”

Last month, 51 constitutional law professors wrote a letter to the Senate saying that common-sense gun laws are consistent with the Second Amendment.

“The Supreme Court has clearly held that the Second Amendment preserves the right of law-abiding citizens to have a firearm in the home for self-defense,” the professors wrote. “As both the historical tradition of the right to bear arms and the Court’s decision suggest, reasonable and limited measures to enhance public safety that do not unduly burden that right are consistent with the Second Amendment.”

In its landmark Heller decision in 2008, the Supreme Court held that Americans have an individual right to possess firearms for lawful purposes such as self-defense. But Justice Scalia, writing for the court’s majority, made clear that the Second Amendment right is “not unlimited” and that, like other rights, it is subject to reasonable regulation.

Durbin argued that “the Heller decision takes pains not to cast doubt on common-sense gun laws. Over and over, the Heller Court described gun regulations as ‘permissible,’ ‘supported by historical tradition,’ and ‘presumptively lawful.’

Taking issue with that stance was attorney Charles J. Cooper, representing the National Rifle Association. He said those Supreme Court rulings “establish that the Second Amendment guarantees a fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms.”

And Cooper argued that the proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammo magazines were unconstitutional because gun rights “cannot be circumscribed by appeal to countervailing government interests.”

Families of gun violence victims plead for action

Impatient with the constitutional debate, relatives of gun victims who filled many of the seats in the hearing room argued for congressional action to stem such violence.

“This isn't about taking away the right to lawfully own guns. This is about trying our best to keep guns out of the hands of people like the ones who killed my brother,” said Sandra Wortham, the sister of a Chicago police officer who was killed by suspected gang members using a gun bought through a straw party.

“We need to do more to keep guns out of the wrong hands in the first place. I don't think that makes us anti-gun, I think it makes us pro-decent, law-abiding people,” testified Wortham. “I am not here to say that any one law would necessarily have stopped what happened to my brother. But I am saying that we can do better.”

Durbin agreed with those sentiments, saying that, “Every year, 11,000 Americans are murdered with guns – more each year that all of the lives lost in the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.” That’s 30 murdered Americans each day, and another 200 a day who are shot but survive the wounds.

Heaphy, the U.S. attorney for the western district of Virginia, said the federal background check system has kept more than 1.5 million guns from criminals and others barred from having them since 1998. He said the background check requirement needs to be expanded and he backed proposals for new federal laws that would make gun trafficking illegal.

"Without more meaningful penalties for those who traffic in firearms, we will continue to find it difficult to dismantle the criminal networks that exploit these statutory gaps," he said.

But U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said some law-abiding citizens might need assault weapons or high-capacity ammo magazines to defend themselves against bands of criminals in rough areas. “I doubt that criminals are going to be limited” in obtaining such high-capacity magazines, he said.

Backing up that argument was Suzanna Gratia Hupp, who was in a restaurant in Killeen, Texas, a decade ago when a gunman fatally shot 23 people, including her parents. She told the panel she had left her gun in her car because of a state law barring guns in restaurants.

Among the more than 100 relatives of gun victims who attended the hearings were:

  • Relatives of Hadiya Pendleton, an honor student from Chicago who was gunned down two weeks ago, a few days after marching in the inaugural parade in Washington.
  • The mother of Ryanne Mace, a student at Northern Illinois University and was killed in the 2008 shooting by man with a history of mental illness;
  • The mother of Blair Holt, a 16-year-old who was killed while shielding his female friend from a gang member who opened fire on a Chicago city bus.

“Some say that all we should do is enforce the laws on the books. But that is not enough,” Durbin said. “The gun lobby has been chipping away at the laws on the books for decades. Now there are gaps in those laws big enough to drive a truck through.”