National Security Tools and Gun Violence

Within days after Nidal Hasan killed 13 people in Fort Hood, TX, Crazy Pete Hoekstra leaked FBI intercepts to the press to suggest Anwar al-Awlaki had pushed Hasan to attack, with the underlying implication that the Obama Administration had failed to prevent terrorism.

And while a number of Democrats have come forward to say that this time we have to do something to prevent massacres like the one in Sandy Hook, no one has yet suggested that it was a failure not to.

It may not have been a failure; thus far, the evidence suggests Adam Lanza’s attack might have been a failure of our mental health system, but there’s no indication he came on the  law enforcement radar outside a failed attempt to buy a gun.

All that said, there’s a shocking underlying assumption there, that the President and the National Security bureaucracy has more responsibility to protect the soldiers in Fort Hood than the 6-year olds in Newtown’s elementary schools from crazed gunmen.

Which is where this Charlie Savage story comes in. It explains how, in the wake of the Gabbie Giffords shooting (by a guy whose profile may be similar to Lanza’s), DOJ moved to ramp up the background checks on gun buyers.

Instead, it focused on ways to bolster the database the F.B.I. uses for background checks on gun purchasers, including using information on file at other federal agencies. Certain people are barred from buying guns, including felons, drug users, those adjudicated mentally “defective,” illegal immigrants and people convicted of misdemeanor offenses related to domestic violence.

For example, the study recommended that all agencies that give out benefits, like the Social Security Administration, tell the F.B.I. background-check system whenever they have made arrangements to send a check to a trustee for a person deemed mentally incompetent to handle his own finances, or when federal employees or job applicants fail a drug test. It also proposed setting up a system to appeal such determinations.

Although advocates for gun rights and privacy protection would probably object to the sharing of such information among agencies, the Justice Department concluded such activity would be lawful and appropriate.

Savage explains that the effort was shelved because of increasing pressure on DOJ because of Fast and Furious. I don’t find that explanation remotely adequate (it may be true, but if so, it’s a measure of the Administration’s failure to defend its own rather than a real political measure). DOJ could have said Border Patrol Brian Terry’s death demonstrated that gun-walking–one intelligence response to the urgent problem of drug gangs using US-purchased guns–had failed, and that this data-driven focus represented DOJ’s new approach to deal with the still urgent problem. (Note, Savage says DOJ also called for increased penalties for straw buyers, which would have fit with that explanation.)

Whatever the excuse, the Administration backed off this plan, even as it rolled out its effort to do something similar, but even more intrusive–to make some of the same databases available for NCTC’s counterterrorist data mining. Once again, the NatSec bureaucracy uses far more intrusive methods against terrorists–who have killed fewer people since 9/11 than the number that died at Sandy Hook Friday–than against gun violence generally.

Mind you, while the scrapped plan sounds fairly reasonable, I’d want to learn more before I agreed this is the right solution. And it would amount to a half measure if it didn’t come with increased accessibility for mental health care.

Though if it happened, I suspect it would trigger the kind of debate about privacy that we should be having over the counterterrorist measures, and we might see the same kind of privacy protections, such as DOJ’s plan to set up an appeal process, in those CT efforts.

As we go forward with this debate, we need to do something about gun violence. But we also need to make it clear that the government has every bit as much–more–responsibility to protect children from crazed gunmen as it has to protect military bases from terrorism. It’s time to stop treating unarmed radicalized Muslims as a bigger threat than mentally ill or imbalanced young men bearing Bushmasters, because far more people are being killed by the latter.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

27 replies
  1. Casual Observer says:

    I’ve been looking at Israeli civilian gun-ownership laws, following Klein’s recent posts. They are remarkably strict, and among other checks, require an actual live interview as part of the process. While gun ownership isn’t a right in Israel (and therefore the legal ground is quite different), their system might serve as a model for what could be done.

    One other point is so obvious we often forget about it. Underlying our ineffective gun laws is the chronic political disease of how we fund elections. Environment, energy, civil liberties, war, economics, health & Safety. All efforts crippled by that one fundamental underlying pathology.

  2. orionATL says:

    – lanza used his mother’s gun collection.

    – everything he did suggests an act of rage and revenge aimed at his parent.

    – it seems to me that data bases like the one described here are pointless.

    – no american citizen needs to own or have access to a civilian version of the m-16, no one.

    – no one needs to own machine pistols shooting 5 rounds per SECOND.

    – the type of bullets used and available cause extraordinary tissue damage and are completely inappropriate for any threat a pistol owner might encounter.

    – ownership of multiple pistols with large capacity magazines is a lethal luxury.

    – the root of this massacre problem lies in the almost unrestricted freedom of weapons manufacturers to manufacture and sell weapons and ammunition no citizen needs for self-protection.

    – nothing positive will be done on this issue until the nra’s threat to legislators and other politicians has been dealt with and defanged.

  3. P J Evans says:

    @orionATL:
    It’s been suggested that guns and their ammunition be stored separately, both in locked cabinets. Which would at least make it more difficult to grab a gun and start shooting.

    The fact that the guns used in Newtown weren’t bought by the shooter seems to show one of the weaknesses of the background check method: it won’t keep people from getting hold of guns that were legally acquired by other people .

  4. orionATL says:

    @P J Evans:

    tast’s a sensible, and relatively easy to accomplish suggestion.

    i’ve read also the suggestion to make guns such that only the registered owner can fire them perhaps using biological markers.

    but this is all mechanics and technology. the problem from my viewpoint is an excess of demand for one completely unimpeded, unmitigated “right” to the exclusion of any commonweal interest whatsoever. all this aided and abetted by the nra, a politically very powerful gun corporation lobbying and arm-twisting organization.

  5. JTMinIA says:

    @Casual Observer: Please, let’s not model any new gun-control laws on those of Israel. If we did, we would simply be codifying that George Zimmerman (who lives in a form of “settlement”) can have a gun and Trayvon Martin (who doesn’t) cannot. Klein’s original piece was highly inaccurate; at best, Klein gets credit for updating and admitting as much.

  6. Casual Observer says:

    @JTMinIA:
    Take a look at their laws if you like. They are much more stringent than ours. I’m aware of the problem with Klein’s original piece. I used the term “model” intentionally, as it doesn’t mean “exact copy”–of course there are aspects that would need change–as is likely case for any model law. And the occupied lands policy is indeed horrible-as is everything related to occupied territory there. So don’t use it.

    One benefit of using Israeli law in this way is that Israel is held up by many gun-enthusiasts as an ideal (in more ways than one–but specifically on their gun policy), when the reality is that firearms are quite strictly regulated there. So it’s a bit of political judo.

  7. lefty665 says:

    @orionATL: Until we ditch the dingbat rhetoric, amateur psychoanalyis and mis-information about firearms, there’s not much chance to have the rational national discussion that we need.

    Anti-gun nuts are just as nuts as real-gun nuts.

  8. orionATL says:

    @lefty665:
    i probably agree with you but the phrases “dingbat rhetoric”, “amateur psychoanalyis”, and “mis-information about firearns” are not specific enough to understand quite what you mean.

    care to elaborate?

  9. lefty665 says:

    @orionATL: The kind of mis-information and outright crap you spout above when legislated in 1994 caused the Dems to lose control of Congress. Dems have not been willing to touch the subject since. What worked so well with that exercise that you are repeating the same rhetorical nonsense? Why have you not learned from that experience?

    One definition of insanity is to repeat actions and expect different results.

  10. lefty665 says:

    @orionATL: You’re sputtering.

    “- no american citizen needs to own or have access to a civilian version of the m-16, no one”

    See the “ugly guns” testimony and debate in ’94. “civilian version” translates to “looks like a military item”. That has nothing to do with function. That was the heart of the hypocrisy in the ’94 legislation that turned off most everyone who knew anything about firearms, not just the NRA zombies. Automatic weapons have been essentially prohibited in the US since 1934. The ’94 law did not change that.

    “- no one needs to own machine pistols shooting 5 rounds per SECOND.”

    So, what do you think about every cop and Sheriff’s Deputy in the country carrying a “machine pistol shooting 5 rounds per SECOND”? Glocks and Sigs are what most departments equip their officers with (using your tax money). Hysterical rhetoric doesn’t help anything.

    “- the type of bullets used and available cause extraordinary tissue damage and are completely inappropriate for any threat a pistol owner might encounter.”

    The Social Security Administration, under a Democratic administration, recently bought 174,000 hollow point bullets. What are they planning to do, protect their offices against an attack of the geezers with canes when the chained CPI makes even cat food too expensive for supper? The Obama administration authorizes these rounds for use against US citizens, so why not for you or me to defend ourselves?

    “- everything he did suggests an act of rage and revenge aimed at his parent.”

    OMG you must have found the only Freudian shrink left in the western world for your therapy.

    We’ve got a real national nightmare to address. Hysterical rhetoric or ignorance from any perspective does not help stop the mayhem. What it does do is make it very hard to have a rational discussion.

  11. shekissesfrogs says:

    @orionATL:
    you made some valid points but like most of us, fall back into our ideologies:

    – lanza used his mother’s gun collection.

    – everything he did suggests an act of rage and revenge aimed at his parent.

    – it seems to me that data bases like the one described here are pointless.

    the databases aren’t pointless, but it’s a misapplication: they’re not intended to solve the problem.

    – no american citizen needs to own or have access to a civilian version of the m-16, no one.

    – no one needs to own machine pistols shooting 5 rounds per SECOND.

    Who has these? Where were they used?

    – the type of bullets used and available cause extraordinary tissue damage and are completely inappropriate for any threat a pistol owner might encounter.

    Bears, Christian Fascists coming for your stash of coffee, jerky and beans in post apocalyptic America.
    No one in law enforcement in the states should have these either, aside from SWAT.

    – ownership of multiple pistols with large capacity magazines is a lethal luxury.

    is it multiple pistols or large capacity magazines you have a problem with here?

    – the root of this massacre problem lies in the almost unrestricted freedom of weapons manufacturers to manufacture and sell weapons and ammunition no citizen needs for self-protection.

    premature diagnosis. We are becoming christian nut /zionist sparta,

    – nothing positive will be done on this issue until the nra’s threat to legislators and other politicians has been dealt with and defanged.

    Is it just the NRA? what about the Pentagon? General Dynamics or URS Corp and Perini How many troops are suiciding themselves off the books?
    If we decided to spend our money on Butter, instead of Guns- the unquestioned military budget, we could spend it on helping people and improving society, but that would mean tackling the structural and cultural issues, not just restricting or punishing individuals.

    I’ve got to say it’s sickens me to see the tear streaming down Obama’s face as he tells the country how heart broken we are about the massacred 5 year olds, when his drone strikes regularly kill the same number of innocents in undeclared wars of pleasure. I wonder if he feels like a fraud.

    Never fear, Feinstein will offer a bill to ban new assault weapons (and large clips) after the legislation expired under Obama. I’d like to see her also make tasers and so-called tear gas illegal, they are used as torture devices by authorities and the gas kills people.

  12. shekissesfrogs says:

    @lefty665: We should look at why democrats/progressives lose the arguments. There is an ascendant virulent strain of pre-millennial christianity (born again) that feeds the fears of a totalitarian government and a coming apocalypse, and the democrats exacerbate this instead of dealing with it intelligently, dismissing concerns and painting them as a bunch of yokels holed up with guns waiting for the revenuers.

    Look back at the tragedy at Waco. Most of it was contrived, and Janet Reno and Joe Biden handled it like a hard nose getting tough on crime – refusing to understand/explore the motivations and fears of an apocalyptical christian sect. There were whistle blowers for the OK case but they called their Republican Reps because they were scared to death of being railroaded by Democrats. Then these fears were reinforced with the Ruby Ridge killings – but excused it away by calling them white supremacists.

    And recently gun walker case increased gun sales because of the fears that Obama and Holder were coming for everyones guns.

    Looks like the DoJ is using these tragedies to feed their own projects, expand the shared NSA data collection vacuum, further the war on (non pharma) drug users, or to strip us of rights based on arbitrary judgements by bureaucrats of so-called mentally ill people or old people.

    in the wake of the Gabbie Giffords shooting .. DOJ moved to ramp up the background checks on gun buyers….

    Instead, it focused on ways to bolster the database the F.B.I. uses for background checks on gun purchasers, including using information on file at other federal agencies. Certain people are barred from buying guns, including felons, drug users, those adjudicated mentally “defective,” illegal immigrants and people convicted of misdemeanor offenses related to domestic violence.

    For example, the study recommended that all agencies that give out benefits, like the Social Security Administration, tell the F.B.I. background-check system whenever they have made arrangements tosend a check to a trustee for a person deemed mentally incompetent to handle his own finances, or when federal employees or job applicants fail a drug test.

    Since when is it a good idea that our own government take advantage of us to get us to surrender our rights to get benefits we’ve already paid for – or a job? Our health history is supposed to be private.

    I am even suspicious of the government. Totalitarian measures that don’t actually work are not going to grow the democratic party.

    @P J Evans:

    It’s been suggested that guns and their ammunition be stored separately, both in locked cabinets. Which would at least make it more difficult to grab a gun and start shooting.

    That’s a good idea. provide free trigger locks to everyone who needs them (without tracking owners) and an ammo lock box with a combination, and require them to be included with the purchase of new guns.

  13. shekissesfrogs says:

    @P J Evans: Also, archery or marksmanship classes in jr and high schools that could teach weapon safety, gun storage safety with an emphasis on mental health issues.
    Of course I wouldn’t expect Bill Gates, the drop-out education czar to approve.

  14. orionATL says:

    “…- no american citizen needs to own or have access to a civilian version of the m-16, no one.

    – no one needs to own machine pistols shooting 5 rounds per SECOND.

    Who has these? Where were they used?

    – the type of bullets used and available cause extraordinary tissue damage and are completely inappropriate for any threat a pistol owner might encounter…”

    you can answer your own question if you go to this wapo article:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/newtown-school-shooters-mother-collected-guns-was-loath-to-let-people-inside-home/2012/12/15/d89c2732-4706-11e2-8061-253bccfc7532_story.html?hpid=z3

    look at the inset on the left hand side.

    the type of weapon, e.g., “commercial version of m-16” or “semi-automatic pistol” is listed for each of the three guns lanza took from his mother’s weapons collections.

    each of the pistols was described as capable of firing up to 5 rounds per second.

    so the answer to your question about who owns these is:

    nancy lanza owned these and others until her son killed her with one and then took them with him to her school to kill children of the age his mother taught.

    does that provide you with a satisfactory answer.

    on another matter, i don’t doubt you are arguing in good faith, but as part of your argument you include police and similar in the gun-ownership category.

    we all understand that they carry and use weapons for their job.

    only to the extent that they have privately owned pistols are they a meaningful part of this problem. even then, given their training, they probably are less inclined to misuse a handgun.

    finally, i don’t need lectures from you on not being ideological. i’d say my comments were no more idealogical than yours – probably a good deal less. this matter is a public health matter with severe ideological political problems attached. that ideological cross is not mine to bear, but i aim to see that thoswe who properly should bear it do.

  15. pdaly says:

    I wanted to bring up a separate point.
    The current school protocol of “lockdown, hide and wait.”

    It appears the protocol saved some of the first graders given the story that one teacher hid children in the closet and misdirected the shooter with the lie “they are in the gym” before the shooter killed her and moved on.

    The problem occurs when the shooter gains access to the classroom of cornered kids. They are sitting ducks and the shooter has very efficient kills in this situation.

    Is there any way to determine whether “fight back and flee” would have had a worst. better. or similar survival outcome in this situation where the shooter seemed determined to kill young kids?

    http://www.npr.org/2012/10/11/162712905/to-survive-a-shooting-students-learn-to-fight-back

  16. orionATL says:

    @pdaly:

    that is a very interesting article,.

    even before i got past the first few lines, i was thinking about the older prof at va tech who saved some of his students before being killed himself. there was another story from that massacre about a student who suffered multiple wounds but survived who insisted that his fellow students bar and hold the door from the assassin.

    the matter of screaming and yelling is a tactic both police and soldiers use to confuse an assailant (well, ok, sometimes they are the assailants trying to confuse a bad guy).

  17. lefty665 says:

    @shekissesfrogs: Damn, now I’ve got to add “Christian Fascists coming for my stash of coffee” to my closet of anxieties. Thanks a lot.

    But more earnestly… Curious isn’t it that our government has purchased hundreds of thousands of rounds of hollow points, outlawed as inhumane in war, for domestic use. The Social Security Administration’s order was for 125 grain 357 Sigs. That’s a hot round. Even in hollow point it’d probably penetrate grandad and get grandma too. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.357_SIG

    The Feds using a tragedy as an excuse to integrate every interaction with government into a master database was the topic of this post. If one remembered pre-millenium assaults, and NDAA infinite detention without charge, altogether it could make a body feel they were being tracked and in danger of being killed or disappeared. Stir in an overlay of religious persecution and it could get right toxic. Palin is affiliated with that end of the religious world isn’t she?

    Hadn’t thought about Waco or Ruby Ridge in a long time. I do remember feeling we’d stepped into la la land when the newsreels clearly showed FBI agents shooting each other through the plywood walls at Waco, then using those “murders by the Branch Davidians” as justification for sending in the tanks. How many children were incinerated in that buried school bus? At Ruby Ridge, the FBI Hostage Rescue Team sniper shooting Weaver’s wife in the head while she held her baby was a special day for the FBI. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Ridge

    But never fear, Sen. Feinstein has grabbed the headlines and all is well. “…Feinstein to Introduce Assault Weapons Ban…”. Of course the fine print taketh away. “Who needs these military-style assault weapons…” The good Senator demonstrates that she clearly knows she is not talking about real assault weapons, she is talking about things that look like, “military-style”, assault weapons. She is fear mongering instead of problem solving, and gun sales will go up again. That’s on top of her amendment to “fix” the NDAA. Thanks Senator.

    With Dems like these who needs enemies? Maybe Obama should nominate Kerry and five more Dems to his cabinet and get rid of that pesky Senate majority entirely.

    Questions: Is a child shot in a classroom any more dead than one killed on the other side of the world by a Hellfire missile launched from a drone on our president’s personal order? Where is the national outrage at those killings? How do we differentiate the killers? Is one less culpable than the other?

  18. bell says:

    i guess i am some idealistic leftist, cause i agree with orionATL in some of the obvious stand outs that need to be addressed.. i don’t know what the fuck gives with politicians putting there own ass before the well being of kids.. explain to me how any of these fuckers justify the sale of assault weapons capable of killing many people quickly? there is no rationale for letting ordinary people have these.. the usa is fucked up and the politicians are definitely responsible..

  19. Bill Michtom says:

    This is the most important things said here:

    Is a child shot in a classroom any more dead than one killed on the other side of the world by a Hellfire missile launched from a drone on our president’s personal order?

    Where is the national outrage at those killings? How do we differentiate the killers? Is one less culpable than the other?

  20. Jessica says:

    Shekissesfrogs:

    “I’ve got to say it’s sickens me to see the tear streaming down Obama’s face as he tells the country how heart broken we are about the massacred 5 year olds, when his drone strikes regularly kill the same number of innocents in undeclared wars of pleasure. I wonder if he feels like a fraud.”

    Thank you for pointing this out. I’ve been accused of not caring about the victims in CT for making that point. That saddens me, the overly simplistic thinking. I was just as sickened by Friday’s news as when I read about the victims in the ME. We have every bit of responsibility to pressure our government to stop their OWN senseless violence as to protect us domestically.

  21. orionATL says:

    @Bill Michtom:

    it is not either the one group or the other;

    it is all children and all civilians in all countries.

    anybody who reads here for any time knows that to be the sentiments of the majority of posters here.

    who is deader, or who deserves sympathy, or whose deaths our government should recognize before doing something about at least one cause of devasting violence is, to put it in its best light, an unproductive argument.

    it is also a red herring that pulls attention and focus away from a current remediable tragedy and leaves folks thinking in circles.

    that informs no one and solves no problem – anywhere in the world.

  22. lefty665 says:

    The answer is all innocents killed deserve our sympathy, outrage and efforts to prevent further deaths.

    The question is never “who deserves sympathy”. It is why our national sympathy and outrage is apparently reserved for children here in the US. We ignore children killed elsewhere in our names, in execution of USG policy, as decided by our president. To misframe it as “who deserves sympathy” is disgusting.

    We desperately need a rational, fact based, national discussion on how to prevent people with severe mental illness from being able to kill, themselves or others. We will not likely get there as long as the issues are decided by fear mongers inciting the ignorant on the right and left.

    Is there a difference between the horrendous acts of an individual who is crazy as shit, and national policy calmly executed by leaders acting in our name? In scope, the answer is objectively “yes”. We have killed a million or more, mostly civilians, including many children, since 911 in execution of US policy. That killing continues. In law, we routinely consider premeditation and competence to understand actions.

    Where to start at stopping the killing, macro or micro? Preferably both, but America today seems unable to hold more than one thought at a time. Macro has the potential to save far more lives. The AUMF contains authority for the president to quit UMF. It can be exercised with a presidential order. “Stop”. Micro seems likely to pitch us again into the miasma of fear mongering, disinformation and grandstanding that has characterized prior ineffective debates. In a month we will wander off after the next shiny object that catches our attention.

  23. Nic108 says:

    We have a murderous Corporate Authoriatian Militarist government that has killed hundreds of innocent children worldwide via drone terrorism. Apparently, some child murders don’t count.

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