Assault weapons: What are they, and should they be banned?
by Josh Richman
One side calls them "weapons of war" that have no place on America's streets. The other side says the term "assault weapons" is simply a menacing moniker designed to stir up anti-gun passions.
President Barack Obama jumped into the center of the fiery debate when he called on Congress to ban those weapons and their high-capacity magazines in the wake of December's elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., giving new life to the crusade of gun-control advocates to re-enact the federal assault-weapons ban that expired in 2004.
The debate begins with a simple question that has no simple answer: Just what is an assault weapon?
Lacking a rigid definition, lawmakers have struggled for years to come up with a set of criteria that sweeps in the rapid-fire, military-style rifles used in some of the nation's most sensational mass murders while leaving out popular hunting rifles that allow a sportsman to quickly fire a half-dozen bullets at a deer dashing through the forest. But it's almost impossible to do that: There are M-16 look-alikes that are far less dangerous than a common pistol, as well as hunting rifles that can do nearly the damage of Connecticut school shooter Adam Lanza's Bushmaster.
"What's politically possible to get and widely supported is not going to be effective because it'll be narrowly confined to a subset of weapons, let's say 'the scary-looking ones,''' said Gary Kleck, a Florida State University criminology professor who has written several books on gun control and gun violence.
In 1989, California lawmakers -- horrified by a mass shooting at a Stockton schoolyard -- adopted the first assault-weapons ban in the country. They simply named the guns that would be banned, and gunmakers responded by changing their names and model numbers. Since then, California and other states, as well as the proponents of a new federal ban, have incorporated a list of military-style characteristics that seem to make the most popular assault weapons especially deadly.
The seven states with assault-weapons laws have much different standards. Hawaii's and Maryland's, for example, deal only with pistols. In California, a semi-automatic rifle is deemed to be an assault weapon if it has a detachable ammunition magazine plus one of several specific features such as a pistol grip, flash suppressor or grenade launcher. Connecticut's law requires at least two of those features, which means the menacing-looking Bushmaster that killed 20 children and seven adults last month was legal. In California, it's banned.
Gun control advocates say the restrictions on military-style weapons are just common sense because those guns encourage unhinged people from imagining themselves as commandos in shopping malls and elementary schools. The other side says the wide of range of definitions shows just how arbitrary the gun bans are.
The National Rifle Association argues that people unfamiliar with guns don't understand even some of their most basic workings. They note correctly that some journalists use the terms "semi-automatic" and "automatic" interchangeably.
Semi-automatics, which feed the next round into the gun chamber as the empty cartridge just fired is ejected, require a separate pull of the trigger for each bullet. Fully automatic weapons, which keep firing as long as the trigger is held down, have essentially been banned in the U.S. since 1934.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation -- a firearms trade association based, coincidentally, in Newtown, Conn. -- says "the term 'assault weapon' was conjured up by anti-gun legislators to scare voters into thinking these firearms are something out of a horror movie." In fact, the term was introduced by the gun industry itself to boost interest in new lines of firearms.
In 1984, Guns & Ammo magazine advertised a book called "Assault Firearms."
"If you are interested in survival tactics and personal defense, we'll give you a look at the newest civilianized versions of the semi-auto submachine gun," the ad said.
Today, the AR-15-style Bushmaster and similar guns banned in California are among the most popular semi-automatic rifles in America.
"These are weapons that will shred your venison before you eat it, or go through the walls of your apartment when you're trying to defend yourself,'' said Jonathan Lowy, director of the Legal Action Project at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, arguing that they're "made for mass killing, but not useful for law-abiding citizens."
Yet gun groups say the Bushmaster works no differently than most semi-automatic firearms, and is lighter, easier to handle and hits its targets harder. Some gun owners like its looks: Bushmaster ads have boasted that owning one renews your "man card."
"The idea that the Second Amendment doesn't protect the most popular civilian rifle is absurd," said Gene Hoffman of Redwood City, cofounder and chairman of the Calguns Foundation, a gun-rights group. "Attempts to ban them are simply attempts to demonize gun owners for choosing a modern rifle."
Some gun control advocates argue that more effort should be placed on banning high-capacity magazines than arguing about what makes an assault weapon.
California's law limits detachable magazines to 10 rounds, as did the 1994 federal ban. New York this week lowered its limit from 10 to seven. But the California, New York and federal bans failed to outlaw the huge number of high-capacity magazines already in circulation.
An independent study done in 2004 on behalf of the National Institute of Justice found the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons declined significantly in six cities during the 10-year federal ban -- particularly with assault pistols, which were used more commonly in crimes because they're more easily concealed. But the study also found that the decline in assault-weapon use was offset by the steady or rising use of other guns equipped with large-capacity magazines.
Data on California's assault-weapons ban is ambiguous at best. In 2011, the state had almost the same rate of gun homicides as the nation as a whole.
Other nations have grappled with the same issues. In 1996, a gunman using semi-automatic rifles in Australia killed 35 people and wounded 23. The country reacted by banning semi-automatic and automatic rifles and shotguns. It also enacted a mandatory buyback program for all such weapons.
A 2010 study by researchers from the Australian National University and Wilfrid Laurier University found that nation's firearm homicide rate fell by 59 percent and its firearm suicide rate fell by 65 percent in the decade after the law's enactment.
The study found Australia bought back about 650,000 firearms. It's unknown how many legally owned semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic shotguns there are in the United States, but estimates range in the tens of millions. So even major gun-control groups aren't calling for all semi-automatic rifles to be banned -- at least, not yet.
"Maybe someday," said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, "but that would require a lot to change between now and then."
Josh Richman covers politics. Contact him at 510-208-6428. Follow him at Twitter.com/josh_richman. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.
U.S. shootings in 2012
Of 10 shootings that made headlines in the United States last year, four involved AR-15-type rifles that could be affected by a proposed federal assault-weapons ban.
Feb. 27 -- Two students killed and three wounded at Chardon High School in Chardon, Ohio; student Thomas "TJ" Lane allegedly used a Ruger MK III .22-caliber semi-automatic handgun.
April 2 -- Seven killed and three wounded at Oikos University in Oakland; former student One Goh allegedly used a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun.
April 6 -- Three dead and two wounded in an apparently racially motivated shooting spree in a predominately African-American section of Tulsa, Okla.; Jake England and Alvin Watts allegedly used a .38-caliber handgun of unknown make and model, according to court testimony.
May 29 -- Five killed (four in a cafe, one in a carjacking) in Seattle shooting spree; Ian Lee Stawicki used a Para-Ordnance .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun and fatally shot himself later the same day.
July 20 -- Twelve killed and 58 wounded in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater; James Holmes allegedly had a Smith & Wesson M&P15 (AR-15-style) semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round drum magazine, a Remington 870 Express Tactical shotgun, and two Glock 22 .40-caliber handguns.
Aug. 5 -- Six killed and four wounded at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisc.; Michael Page used a Springfield XD (M) 9 mm semi-automatic handgun. He killed himself with a shot to the head after being wounded by a police officer.
Sept. 27 -- Six killed and two wounded at Accent Signage Systems in Minneapolis; Andrew Engeldinger, who had just been fired from the company, used a Glock 19 9 mm semi-automatic handgun and killed himself after the rampage.
Dec. 11 -- Two people killed and one wounded at Clackamas Town Center mall in Happy Valley, Ore.; Jacob Roberts used a Bushmaster .223-caliber (AR-15-style) semi-automatic rifle, and killed himself at the scene.
Dec. 14 -- Twenty-seven killed and two wounded in Newtown, Conn.; Adam Lanza used a Bushmaster .223-caliber (AR-15-style) semi-automatic rifle but also carried a Glock 20 10 mm semi-automatic handgun. A Sig Sauer P226 9 mm semi-automatic handgun and a shotgun were found in his car after he killed himself at the scene.
Dec. 24 -- Two volunteer firefighters killed and two wounded in Webster, N.Y.; William Spengler Jr. used a Bushmaster .223-caliber (AR-15-style) semi-automatic rifle but also had a Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun and a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with him. He killed himself at the scene. Spengler's sister's remains were found in the burned rubble of his house, but the cause of her death hasn't been made public.
L.A. County's Teen Court aims to put kids back on right path
by Barbara Jones
The ring of a cellphone interrupted the defendant's testimony, a tone silenced quickly as Judge Sandy Kriegler frowned at the errant spectator.
"Let's remember, ladies and gentlemen, that this is a courtroom," he said.
And while Kriegler was presiding over what looked like a typical courtroom - with a judge's bench, witness stand and jury deliberation room - he was actually speaking to students crowded into a converted lecture hall at Van Nuys High. The recently dedicated courtroom, funded with $115,000 in construction bond revenue, brings a heightened sense of realism to the campus's long-running Teen Court program.
"Students take it much more seriously," said Emma Martinez, the school's bilingual coordinator, who oversees Teen Court. "I've noticed a big difference."
Van Nuys High hosts one of 18 Teen Court programs operating in Los Angeles County, where students hear the cases of first-time juvenile offenders accused of nonviolent misdemeanors like petty theft, tagging and drug possession.
Most of the schools hold the after-school sessions in regular classrooms, as Van Nuys High did until the county, Los Angeles Unified School District and San Fernando Bar Association partnered in the renovation.
Kriegler, a former prosecutor and Superior Court judge who now sits on the state Court of Appeal, introduced Teen Court to Van Nuys High - his alma mater - nearly a decade ago.
It's a popular program, drawing upwards of 120 students to the monthly after-school sessions, which earn them extra credit. Any of the students can question the defendant, but a jury of 12 volunteers renders a verdict and recommends punishment, which Kriegler said is usually harsher than what he'd actually impose.
"My goal, without berating them, is to change the direction of kids in trouble, and make sure they don't mess up their lives," he said. "I try to help them appreciate the importance of doing what's right."
This month, Van Nuys students heard the case of a 16-year-old from neighboring Sylmar High, charged with possessing drug paraphernalia - a pipe for smoking methamphetamine.
Their questions to the youth named Mark were direct: How many times had he smoked meth? Where did he get the money? What kind of punishment had he received from his family?
It didn't take long for the jury to find Mark guilty - like most Teen Court defendants, he admitted his crime.
Kriegler followed most of the jury's guidelines when he sentenced Mark to 30 hours of community service, an overnight curfew and family counseling. He also ordered the youth to pull up his grades, submit to random drug tests and write a letter of apology to his mom and uncle, as well as a two-page essay on how drugs can destroy a family.
If Mark completes his sentence within six months, his criminal record will be cleared.
Luis Carranza, the foreman on Mark's jury, is a frequent participant in Teen Court, which he sees as laying the groundwork for his future career as a lawyer. Beyond that, he said the program offers students insight into the lives of their peers, and themselves.
"We learning more about how and why people do what they do," he said. "And this helps us learn from the mistakes of others."
Columbia Heights police officers get out into the community
by SHANNON PRATHER
In 2008, Columbia Heights' crime was spiking. So the new police chief pushed officers out of their squad cars and into the community. The result: Crime has hit a 25-year low. Columbia Heights' crime rate was spiking when Scott Nadeau took over as the new police chief in 2008.
Robbery, burglaries and vandalism were all on the rise. The call-and-response way the department conducted business left officers chasing the problem, Nadeau realized.
"It was that 1960s and 70s model of rapid response and investigating crimes as opposed to trying to look at where you have issues in the community and working with community stakeholders to try and bring about change," Nadeau explained. "You can't arrest your way out of a problem. You have to have a more proactive approach."
Determined to reduce crime and renew the public's confidence in the police, Nadeau analyzed crime data for hot spots and started talking to community members. The department plugged into social media to better connect with the public. The chief pushed his 27 officers out of their squad cars and into school gymnasiums, storefronts and church potlucks.
By 2012, the city's crime rate dropped to a 25-year low. The results are so dramatic the department received the 2012 International Association of Chiefs of Police Community Policing Award. The city won in the category for cities under 20,000.
"I am proud of the whole department," said Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson. "We are more proactive. Police knocked on doors in problem neighborhoods. They made contact and shook hands so people would see who the police are. Our community knows our police better and knows they are there as a service to them."
Nadeau's community policing initiative doesn't involve just meet-and-greets. Officers have started more than 10 ongoing community policing partnerships. The department:
Pushed through a city ordinance that forces problem landlords to either work with police to clean up their act or pay $250 for each excessive 911 call to their properties.
Assigned three police officers to schools.
Started an anti-bullying program where officers read and visit with students.
Created a Big Brothers-Big Sisters program at Highland Elementary, where 10 officers and staff members mentor 10 selected students.
Hosts weekly open gym time at schools. More than 3,500 children and teens attended last year alone.
Set up a Facebook page where residents can read about crime alerts, accidents and crime prevention tips.
Posts weekly crime stats on its website.
Reinvigorated the city's Community Watch program with training and year-round outreach, rather than solely focusing on National Night Out.
Started a Business Watch that works with local businesses to prevent crime.
Met with local churches and community groups with multicultural populations to discuss police tactics and concerns about racial profiling.
"It's been an absolute whirlwind. It wasn't too long after Chief Nadeau took the reins that certain philosophical shifts were occurring," said Officer Terry Nightingale, community policing coordinator and 27-year veteran of the department. "I find him an individual that thinks very globally. He has lots of energy and has lot of ideas on how to address our core missions, one of which is to reduce crime."
Robberies have dropped from 48 in 2007 to 18 in 2012. Thefts have been nearly cut in half from a high of 836 in 2007, and vandalism has fallen from 437 offenses to 147 during that same time period.
Nadeau, who came from the Brooklyn Center police department, said employing community policing strategies doesn't lessen the officers' ability or commitment to traditional policing tactics when necessary.
"We balance it with enforcement. Sometimes people have to go to jail, and sometimes people have to be convicted," Nadeau said.
Officers are trying to change perceptions, and many of their community policing efforts focus on changing perceptions among children.
"It's not our job to arrest or harass or intimidate. We challenge some of those perceptions," Nadeau said. "It helps us to get in and show them our job is to serve people."
Officers regularly visit Highland Elementary. They're part of the anti-bullying program, the DARE drug prevention program and Big Brothers-Big Sisters.
"We just have an amazing relationship with the police department," said Highland Elementary Principal Michele DeWitt. "It's really engaging for the students. I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from the parents that it was meaningful for the kids."
Officer Tessa Villegas helped set up the Big Brother-Big Sister partnership with police. She is also a big sister to a 10 year-old girl. They eat lunch together in the school cafeteria and then play board games, color and chat.
"It's nice to have someone always happy to see you... It's nice to know you are a strong female role model for somebody," Villegas said. "It will be interesting to see her grow as a little girl and a person."
The department's community policing efforts hasn't been all smiles. Nadeau said there have been a few hiccups along the way.
In an effort to lower the number of pedestrians stuck by vehicles on Central Avenue, police began ticketing jaywalkers. That move had even members of the City Council grumbling, so Nadeau eased the policy. "We kind of have to roll that back and make sure everyone gets one warning," Nadeau said.
The department has reached out to immigrant communities, who were accustomed to military policing and corruption in their countries of origin and are suspicious of the American justice system, Nadeau said.
Several officers attended a potluck at Church of All Nations and were questioned about racial profiling and police tactics. At the potluck, Hispanic church members told officers they felt intimidated when squad cars idled in the church parking lot.
"There were some emotions and suspicions. It was a good conversation. We appreciated the honestly of being able to talk with them," said Dana Caraway, pastoral assistant. "They were very kind about it."
Police stopped idling in the park lot. Church members feel the relationship with police is now a work in progress, Caraway said. "We are grateful now we have a relationship," she said.
Police invited church members to the tour the new police station. The neighborly gesture struck a chord with Caraway and others.
"It was good. We hosted them. They hosted us," Caraway said. "I personally appreciated knowing people in the police force. If we do have problems, I know people that I can call."
The chief credits the community as much as his department for lower crime rate and better police-community relations. "It's not just the effort of the police but the entire community coming together," Nadeau said. "It's the collaboration that made the difference."
Police Department Expands Presence in Schools
Gloucester Township Police Chief W. Harry Earle announces significant changes for township schools' security.
by Sean McCullen
Gloucester Township Police Chief W. Harry Earle announced this afternoon his department has implemented a plan to bring a significantly increased police presence to the township's 11 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade (K-8) schools.
There will not be one armed officer in each of Gloucester Township Public Schools' 11 school buildings at all times under the plan, but Earle notes in a statement police will have "a significantly increased uniform presence at all of our elementary schools. These officers will be patrolling our schools' hallways, parking areas, highways adjacent to our schools, answering police calls for service at our schools, building mutual respect between the school staff and most importantly establishing a rapport with the students."
The Police Department's Juvenile Unit has been expanded from four officers to eight, including a sergeant who will serve as unit commander and direct all school- and juvenile-related activities for the Police Department, in order to implement the school security improvements, Earle said.
Earle's complete statement is below:
The Gloucester Township Police Department has consistently engaged in a policing philosophy focused on community policing, building partnerships, and developing programs and initiatives aimed at addressing crime and reducing violence. As the one month anniversary of the Sandy Hook School massacre passes, we have taken the opportunity to continue in our efforts of implementing and developing community partnerships and programs especially those dealing with youth and school safety.
Earlier this month, Mayor (David) Mayer and Gloucester Township Council authorized the expansion of our Police Department's Juvenile Unit. This unit, which in the past consisted of four officers, is tasked with patrolling our high schools, investigating juvenile related crime, referring juvenile victims and juveniles in crisis to the appropriate services, and managing our anti-violence programs including Project BATLE, GT Focus, The Gathering Space, the upcoming program GT MARRS, and even more. A brief description of these programs can be viewed on the Township website. The Juvenile Unit has now been greatly expanded to include a total of eight positions all of which will be staffed by police officers. Additionally, the unit will now be commanded by a Sergeant whose duty will be to manage all police operations involving youth and our schools throughout our entire community. These operational modifications will greatly assist in investigating youth suspected of criminal activity, managing our anti-violence programs, and establishing a direct community partnership with our schools including the school staff and students.
Our new and expanded Juvenile Unit has resulted in the Gloucester Township Police Department having a significantly increased uniform presence at all of our elementary schools. These officers will be patrolling our schools' hallways, parking areas, (and) highways adjacent to our schools, answering police calls for service at our schools, building mutual respect between the school staff, and most importantly establishing a rapport with the students. Having uniformed Gloucester Township Police Officers in our schools has been commonplace for decades. We have had uniformed officers in our elementary schools and our high schools every day as part of our pre-existing High School Resource Officer (SRO) Program, our K-6 Society Improvement Program (entitled SIP, which is a Safety and Community Education Youth Training Program), or our D.A.R.E. Program. Our high school SRO program has existed since 1999, our SIP Program since the 1970s, and D.A.R.E. since 1990. The benefit of having children see uniformed Gloucester Township Police Officers in their schools is nothing new at all; however, as a result of our Juvenile Unit expansion, parents, students, and staff will be seeing even more uniformed Gloucester Township Police Officers and marked police units at their schools. The expansion of our Juvenile Unit from four officers to seven officers with a Unit Supervisor (Sergeant) demonstrates our commitment in assisting our schools in providing a safe environment for our children.
The additional positions associated with the expanded Juvenile Unit are in addition to the expansion of our D.A.R.E. Program to seventh grade last year which commits two full-time officers in our schools on a daily basis during the entire school year.
The Gloucester Township Police Department understands well that having fully trained and equipped police officers responding to school-related calls for service and as well patrolling our schools is of great importance. We also understand that as a community it is imperative that we understand that youth are in need of social services, and criminal justice services. Additionally, it is of great importance that those that may be at risk of being victimized or even violating the law are identified whenever possible and offered the appropriate prevention services.
The expansion of our Juvenile Unit and our ongoing partnership with our schools will ensure that we effectively and efficiently patrol our schools and just as importantly reinforce and continue to implement programs that aim to prevent violence. As we move throughout the year 2013, Gloucester Township will be opening a facility entitled the Gloucester Township Police Community and Youth Meeting Center where services will be offered for families and youth. In consideration of the violence that has plagued the nation, it is imperative that we do whatever is necessary to identify potential violence and work with our schools in providing services whenever possible.
As the issue of gun and youth violence continues to be discussed around the nation, there is no doubt that the Gloucester Township Police Department will continue to collaborate with our township officials and schools to assist in making our schools safe and to ensure that the parents of our community children feel safe.
-- Gloucester Township Police Chief W. Harry Earle