World

For trigger-happy Americans cash is king

Rowan Philp

American mass shooters in 40 states can legally buy a semiautomatic assault rifle or high-capacity magazine over the counter.

A legal loophole means that private sellers don't have to do background checks when selling weapons at gun shows. (AFP)

Christian Heyne was playing baseball with friends when he heard the sirens. Sirens were unusual in the neighbourhood – Thousand Oaks was called "the safest city in America" – so Heyne followed the police cars a few blocks to check out the drama.

There, he recognised his father's car in a suburban driveway. And there, he learned from neighbours that a man who had just killed his mother, Jan Heyne, also murdered a family friend and shot his father three times.

Toby Welchel had done it with a gun he had bought, even after being arrested for beating a police officer and being placed under a court's restraining order, where a judge had declared him a violent threat. The next day Welchel – a former air force captain thrown out for erratic behaviour – used other legally bought guns to kill two more people, wound another two, and commit suicide in a Walmart store.

"And this is California, which has the best gun-control laws in the country," said Heyne (26). "My mother was killed as she tried to help my dad's best friend tried to apply pressure to his wounds. Toby let her beg for her life and run 10 steps before shooting her."

There have – astonishingly – been 63 mass shootings in the United States since Jared Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and killed six other people in January last year, according to the Brady Campaign for the Prevention of Gun Violence. The 61st case was the killing of six people at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin last week by white supremacist "lone wolf" Wade Page. There have been two since the weekend: number 62 was in Boston where four died and then the 63rd at Texas A&M University where the gunman was killed after he shot dead a police officer and a civilian bystander.

From an informal media survey, it seems the shootings that make national headlines are only those where the gunman was accurate enough to kill three or more people, or where it is clear that gang members were not involved.

For Heyne, and a dozen gun control advocacy groups, the real worry is not California but the 40 states where any adult can legally buy a semiautomatic assault rifle or high-capacity magazine over the counter, with nothing but a driver's licence, and without a background check. Or often with nothing but cash.

Dangerous weapons
Three months ago, Heyne wanted to see for himself whether a person could legally buy a gun for cash – voetstoots – with nothing but an ID and a local address. He went to a Virginia gun show with a friend. "The guy just put the pistol on the table in a grocery store bag; my friend handed over the cash, and we walked away with it," he said. "No background check, nothing."

A striking feature of the US's growing push-back against easy access to dangerous weapons is that it is typically the survivors of shootings, rather than federal regulators or journalists, who are exposing the threat.

Colin Goddard was shot four times during the Virginia Tech mass ­shooting in 2007, when 32 students were killed. Goddard has cruised gun sales websites and travelled to gun shows for the past two years to find out how people like his assailant, Sueng-Hui Cho, could acquire semiautomatic weapons with high-capacity magazines.

Although licensed gun sellers must perform background checks, "private sellers" at gun shows are allowed to avoid this in a legal loophole. But Goddard found that private sellers charge more for their weapons as a fee to avoid background checks – making their sales tailor-made for buyers with records of mental illness or felony crimes.

In an undercover video released to the Mail & Guardian, Goddard is shown approaching a private gun seller at an Ohio gun show in June last year. A middle-aged man sits in front of a rack of semiautomatic assault rifles and behind an empty desk, with no signage around his station.

Goddard says: "Wonder if we could see your Maadi Egyptian [AK-47]?"

Showing the black assault rifle to a friend, Goddard says: "This thing is pretty diesel [cool], dude. Expanded stock, 30-round clip. You want $660 for it?"

The seller says: "Yeah – out the door."

No paperwork
While already counting the cash, the seller adds: "[You] have to be over 18 and an Ohio resident. There's no tax or paperwork."

Goddard says: "Oh, I don't have my [driver's licence] on me."

The man pauses and says: "Oh, okay. Have fun with it."

In three other sales in different states, the pattern is the same: the sellers actively market their "no paperwork" benefit, and only half-heartedly ask for basic ID after taking the cash.

Sales of military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines were banned in the US between 1994 and 2004. Citywide studies in places like Miami, Boston and Baltimore showed a marked decline in deadly shootings, and an up to 32% reduction in the times these weapons were used in crimes.

President George W Bush allowed the ban to lapse in 2004, and the number of assault-weapon deaths has jumped since, even as the overall crime rate has fallen nationwide to just 52% of its 1992 high point.

The vast majority of the US's mass shooters were not officially mentally unstable at the time of their rampages. A 2002 Secret Service report found that only 17% of the 41 shooters they analysed had been diagnosed with a mental disorder. But – significantly – 78% had considered suicide.

Honour culture
A Washington Post report this month also noted a fascinating trend in school shootings: that they happened twice as often in small towns or suburbs where "honour culture" was emphasised; "where high school is the main driver of social status".

Page and the alleged "Batman" cinema shooter in Colorado, James Holmes, are a sort of composite of the worst mass shooter of them all: Anders Breivik, who killed 77 people in one chilling rampage in Norway last year. Page echoes Breivik's white supremacist anger and ignorance (he reportedly believed the Sikhs he was shooting were Muslims), but Holmes reflects Breivik's MO – right down to the heavy assault rifle, the full battle gear, the corralled victims and explosives as an encore (Holmes rigged his apartment with bombs).

Dr Brian Russell is a forensic psychologist who is often called as an expert witness in major deadly shooting cases. He disagrees with the liberal focus on semiautomatic weapons and tight gun-control laws, and he also disagrees with those on the right who say mass shooters are just "troubled", to use a favoured Fox News term. Russell believes most of these killers are simply dangerous people: bitter malcontents who should be "segregated from society" after lesser antisocial acts are reported.

Far from being Hannibal Lecters, Russell said the shooters are "sad, lonely and/or angry" young people with a penchant for violence.

"If you're doing any complex planning, concealment or plain forethought, you are not going to fit the bill for legal insanity," he said. "But shooting up some place full of people is never the first antisocial act – there is always escalation, and we have to do better in spotting people who need to be segregated; certainly, in making it harder for them to own guns. The problem is that we in the US have erred on the side of individual liberty at the cost of public safety. It's the problem with our catch-and-release criminal justice system."

Misdemeanour
Russell accepts the jarringly contrasting figures in Western societies: where the US has more than 9000 gun homicides each year, and thousands more fatal accidents and suicides, compared with 51 gun murders in Britain, where private handgun ownership is tightly controlled. And he accepts the notion that, in the United Kingdom, a Loughner or a Holmes – or certainly the Columbine shooters – would likely have been slapped with an antisocial behaviour order after vandalising a Gap storefront or stabbing a Royal Mail clerk. And yet these same people, operating under US laws, easily caused the deaths of far more people than Charles Manson.

"But we don't have the option to become like Britain – we already have a tremendous supply of firearms among our civilian population," he said. "The US has never been occupied by an invading force; it has never been under totalitarian rule – and so we have never had a government which purged its population of its guns."

The best estimate is that there are 300-million privately owned guns in the US; more firearms than cars.

More controversially: Russell believes the body count at the Aurora, Colorado, cinema would have been reduced if the standard "no firearms allowed" signs weren't erected outside. He said he himself would have fired back and likely saved a few lives – even accepting that a bystander may have been struck in the crossfire.

"The only person who won't care about the misdemeanour of carrying a gun into a cinema is also the person who plans to commit mass murder," said Russell.

Supporting Russell's case is that Holmes's AR-15 assault rifle reportedly jammed after less than 30 of the 100 rounds in the magazine drum had been fired, and after 12 people had been killed. What would have happened if Holmes's rifle hadn't jammed? How would the US's gun-control laws have changed if he had achieved a Breivik-scale body count?

The consensus among experts from groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is: not much would have changed; at least, not this year.

Neither Governor Mitt Romney nor President Barack Obama want to go anywhere near a gun-control debate in this election campaign. This is despite  a Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, publishing a telling survey of gun owners last month that showed that even the majority of the pro-gun lobby group, the National Rifle Association of America, believes background checks should be compulsory for all firearm purchases.

Mass shootings
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Americans have already signed petitions in support of a new grassroots campaign, We're Better Than This, which was launched after the cinema massacre to promote basic controls.

Democratic presidents, in particular, seem to fear the rifle association in the way they used to fear mayors of Chicago. In a statement sent to the M&G, Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign, said: "To say that there is nothing we can do in the wake of gun violence, whether in a movie theatre in Aurora or the streets of Chicago, is to say that the most powerful nation in the world is helpless, and is willing to allow its citizens to be gunned down by the dozens every day, because its leaders are beholden to the political lobby of the gun industry."

But in an uncomfortable scheduling accident, the first presidential TV debate of this election will take place within 16km of not one but two of the US's worst mass shootings – the Columbine massacre and Holmes's cinema shooting.

Turning the screw on their discomfort, Gross said he had sent a formal letter to debate moderator Jim Lehrer, requesting that both candidates be forced to offer solutions to the problem – because, "during the next presidential term, 48 000 more Americans will be murdered unless we do something about it".

One problem with Russell's people-kill-people theory emerges from a careful reading of the US's highest-profile mass shootings.

Lethal endgames
Unlike Breivik, who acquired his guns with great effort for years under Norway's strict laws, most of the US's shooters insist on playing their lethal endgames with brand new, movie-cool toys. No dull Colt .45s or farm shotguns for these shooters: it is all Glocks, Walthers, tactical 12-gauges and AR-15s, straight out the box (or grocery bag).

In fact, it is hard to find examples of a non-gang-related killing spree with an old gun involved, almost in the way a girl might avoid her prom dance rather than go without a new dress.

The US's mass shooters do not have to reload, and they do not have to recock their guns. Their only inconvenience is having to squeeze the trigger each time they fire, because fully automatic weapons are – at least for the moment – still banned.

For Heyne, the problem starts with the weaponry. "The Colorado guy had 6 000 rounds of ammunition in his house that he legally bought over a few months, right over the internet – 6 000!" said Heyne.

"He had a military-type assault rifle that couldn't possibly help anyone with self-defence or with hunting. And he was openly disturbed. The guy who killed my mother was also clearly off his rocker. How do people in Congress not see the problem with this?"

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