Loopholes and Bulletholes

By: Antoinette D’Addario

On Memorial Day 2005, Timothy and Janice Heyne were docking their boat at friend Steve Mazin’s home in Thousand Oaks, California when veteran Toby Whelchel opened fire. He killed Janice and Steve and critically injured Timothy.

 

Mazin had represented Whelchel in two court cases and in his Air Force court martial and took out a restraining order against Whelchel after he attacked Mazin in his own home. According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article, Whelchel was court-martialed in 1999, fined $3,000 and discharged for failing to show up on time for work. Whelchel also had a criminal record in Florida and Indiana in addition to California.

 

“Their friend [Mazin] had a restraining order against a man [Whelchel] who came and shot the friend, shot my father three times, killed my mom [then] shot a police officer, bludgeoned a mother in front of her kids and finally turned his gun on himself,” Heyne said.

 

Shortly after losing his mother, Christian Heyne committed himself to fighting gun violence and promoting gun control.

 

“How the hell did this happen?” Heyne asked.

 

After his parents’ shooting, Heyne learned American gun laws had many loopholes.

 

“The gun lobby has made it easy for an illegal market of guns to run in our states,” Heyne said. “The majority of states in this country don’t require a background check to purchase a gun.”

 

Article XI § 7 of the California Constitution states “a county or city may make and enforce within its limits all local, police, sanitary, and other ordinances and regulations not in conflict with general laws.” This provision gives local authorities equal power to the state legislature to protect the welfare of its residents. This made it possible for Heyne and other advocates to pass and implement local ordinances preventing gun violence in their communities.

 

The state legislature’s passing of California Assembly Bill 1471, which requires guns sold in California to have a micro stamp device on the weapon, was a major victory for Heyne.

 

“The micro stamp intentionally stamps a code on the shell casing to trace the weapon,” said Heyne.  “Shell casings are often [what are] left behind at shootings and what you find out is — contrary to what CSI shows tell you — it’s extremely hard to trace guns from shell casings; it only happens about one percent of the time,” said Heyne.

 

A series of lawsuits have been filed delaying enactment of the bill, but Heyne is hopeful it will roll out soon and be implemented in other states.

 

Under President Obama, the Social Security Administration (SSA) implemented provisions of the 2007 National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act. This act allowed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to report a person who they classified as “mentally defective” to the NICS to prevent them from obtaining a firearm unless the veteran is able to prove he or she does not pose a danger to themselves or others.

 

Under this system, if a veteran was appointed a fiduciary from the VA to manage their financial affairs, they were labeled mentally incompetent and his or her name was sent to the FBI’s NICS, which could prohibit them from legally purchasing or owning a firearm. While they could apply for relief from this prohibition, the decision was in the hands of a VA bureaucrat not a judicial authority.

 

Whelchel’s actions on Memorial Day elicited questions on his mental health status and whether or not he should have had access to a gun. His killing spree and ultimate suicide is indicative of a violent streak that may have been prevented had he been prohibited from purchasing a firearm.

 

In 2014, 7,403 veterans committed suicide, averaging 21 suicides per day. Sixty-six percent of these suicides were perpetrated using firearms. Veteran suicides accounted for 18 percent of all suicides committed in the United States in 2014, according to a study by the Department of Veteran Affairs.

 

Andrew Gottlieb, director of outreach and development at the Second Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit gun rights advocacy group, thinks deeming someone mentally incompetent is walking a very fine line.

 

“Obviously, we have too many veterans committing suicide, [but] when you deem somebody mentally incompetent it becomes a huge issue,” Gottlieb said.

 

Furthermore, the idea of someone losing their rights when they admit they are having a problem bothers him.

 

“If someone seeks help [they] could lose their rights,” he said. “We’re encouraging people to not get help because of the punishment that comes with it. I don’t think someone should be punished for getting help.”

 

“We have a public health crisis,” Heyne said. “We exist in a place where every year there are 100,000 people killed, wounded or maimed by guns and we aren’t doing anything about it. If it was a disease or car accidents, we would be all over it and right now, not only are we not all over it [but] we continue to see a push to stop any kind of regulation.”

 

In 1997, the CDC was banned from doing in-depth research on gun violence after the passage of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill, also known as the Dickey Amendment. It was named after Jay Dickey, a Republican representative from Arkansas who proposed it in 1996 in response to the gun control debate heating up after the 1994 election and Clinton’s campaign on gun control legislation.

 

The bill contained clear and proscriptive language: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This stipulation, along with the stripping of all funding to gun research, effectively banned gun violence research, despite many experts viewing the problem as a public health issue.

 

The NRA has a history of defending the bill and has lobbied for additional bans on gun research since its passage.

 

But Dickey never intended for the bill to be as far-reaching as it has become. Looking back, Dickey apologized for his actions.

 

“I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Dickey said to the Huffington Post in 2015.

 

While Dickey left Congress before changing his stance on gun research, he authored an op-ed in 2012 for the Washington Post on his new position and has encouraged his former colleagues to adopt a more open view of research.

 

In the wake of this bill, the CDC can only collect surveillance data (basically a count) on shootings. But the CDC’s gun research was never about gun control, according to CDC epidemiologist Cheryl Williams. Williams has spent over 20 years researching infectious diseases around the world. Researchers argue gun violence is similar to an infectious disease and can be studied by applying similar principles and methods.

 

“It was never gun control [research],” Williams said. “The CDC is all about prevention of illness and injury. We don’t make regulations, we don’t enforce, we just say ‘here is the evidence, x, y, z causes x, y, z, and we recommend these guidelines.’”

 

On February 16, 2017 Representative David Roe, R-Tenn., introduced the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act to Congress. This act, if passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the president, would block the VA from reporting these “mentally defective” veterans to NICS.

 

Upon the House’s passing of the bill, Rep. Roe released the following statement:

 

“I strongly believe we must do everything in our power to protect the rights guaranteed to all Americans, especially the men and women who have served, by the Constitution. The Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act does just that. I’m proud to stand with my colleagues in passing this important legislation that ensures no veteran who utilizes a fiduciary will lose their Second Amendment rights without due process.”

 

The Department of Veteran Affairs’ acting deputy assistant secretary James Hutton offered the following statement to this reporter in response to the bill’s passage.

 

“The Bill passed the House, but it’s really not a VA issue, because VA does not maintain the NICS list, but rather the Department of Justice does. VA is required to comply with the laws as they stand at any given time. At this point, the new Bill must still go to the Senate and if passed in any form, would then go to the President for signature or veto.

 

“It’s important to point out that VA sends out a letter to Veterans who are proposed to have their names submitted to NICS. There’s a 60-day time frame before submission in order to allow the Veteran an opportunity to contest the submission. We commonly refer to this as a “Due Process” letter because it affords the Veteran his/her opportunity for due process.

 

“[The] VA makes every effort to provide the Veteran the opportunity to officially challenge submission to NICS and we take Veterans’ rights very seriously.”

 

The act concerns Heyne and the CSGV. There is an important component of this vote that is not being talked about; the Republicans brought this bill forward under the Congressional Review Act, which was passed in 1996 and allows new federal regulations from government agencies to overrule a regulation and prohibits the reestablishment of the rule in the same form, according to Richard Beth, a specialist on the Congress and legislative process.

“[It] basically says ‘we are going to overturn this bill and make it so it can never be voted on again,’” said Heyne.

 

“Rather than just throwing the rule out, let’s make it better,” Heyne said. “Whereas Republicans chose to throw it out and never deal with it again.”

 

“This move could set a dangerous precedent,” he said.

 

While the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, where Heyne is currently the legislative director, was neutral on the vote, they saw flaws in how the Obama administration created the process to disqualify a veteran from owning a weapon.

 

“Our problem with the rule was [the way it was] written,” Heyne said. “The only determination they were using [for gun ownership] was a mental illness qualifier. If you look at the research, mental illness is not a huge indicator of future acts of violence. Research shows only about four percent of violence in this country is solely due to mental illness.”

 

Currently, somewhere between 168,000 and 174,000 veterans have been prohibited from purchasing weapons because of their mental illness.

 

“What we feel is grossly irresponsible is that we think that they would just blanketly [sic] give gun rights back to this at-risk group of veterans,” Heyne said.

 

Veterans have weapons training as part of their service, but this may not be useful knowledge for someone with a mental illness.

 

“Will veterans with PTSD be safe having a weapon in their home?” Hamm asked. “Many of them know their way around a weapon, but is that always a good thing? There comes a point that while you [a veteran] know what you’re doing, that may not be a good thing.”

 

“If you’re trying to give gun rights back to this population, you need to have an individualized process to prevent putting guns back in the hands of people who can potentially hurt themselves,” Heyne said.

 

“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Hamm said. “Gun safety is something every American should care about because it’s one of the leading causes of death.”

 

While the two sides of the debate rarely see eye to eye, in this case Gottlieb agrees with a need to reduce the number of deaths from firearms.

 

“We never want to see someone killed or shot,” he said.

 

Despite his wins in California and his work in Washington D.C. since coming to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, Heyne will never escape what brought him to the table.

 

“My wife will never even have the opportunity to meet my mother because we allowed a dangerous individual access to guns for… I still don’t know why,” he said. “My mom will never know her grandchildren.”

 

Loopholes and Bullet holes

By: Antoinette D’Addario

 

On Memorial Day 2005, Timothy and Janice Heyne were docking their boat at friend Steve Mazin’s home in Thousand Oaks, California when Toby Whelchel opened fire. He killed Janice and Steve and critically injured Timothy.

 

Shortly after losing his mother, Christian Heyne committed himself to fighting gun violence and promoting gun control.

 

“Their friend [Mazin] had a restraining order against a man [Whelchel] who came and shot the friend, shot my father three times, killed my mom [then] shot a police officer, bludgeoned a mother in front of her kids and finally turned his gun on himself,” Heyne said.

 

“How the hell did this happen?” Heyne asked.

 

Mazin represented Whelchel in two court cases and in his Air Force court martial. Mazin took out a restraining order against Whelchel after he attacked Mazin in his own home. According to a 2005 Los Angeles Times article, Whelchel was court-martialed in 1999, fined $3,000 and discharged for failing to show up on time. Whelchel also had a criminal record in Florida and Indiana in addition to California.

 

After his parents’ shooting, Heyne learned American gun laws had many loopholes.

 

“The gun lobby has made it easy for an illegal market of guns to run in our states,” Heyne said. “The majority of states in this country don’t require a background check to purchase a gun.”

 

Article XI § 7 of the California Constitution states “a county or city may make and enforce within its limits all local, police, sanitary, and other ordinances and regulations not in conflict with general laws.” This provision gives local authorities equal power to the state legislature to protect the welfare of its residents. This made it possible for Heyne and other advocates to pass local ordinances preventing gun violence in their communities.

 

The state legislature’s passing of California Assembly Bill 1471, which requires guns sold in California to have a micro stamp device on the weapon, was a major victory for Heyne.

 

“The micro stamp intentionally stamps a code on the shell casing to trace the weapon,” said Heyne.  “Shell casings are often [what are] left behind at shootings and what you find out is — contrary to what CSI shows tell you — it’s extremely hard to trace guns from shell casings; it only happens about one percent of the time,” said Heyne.

 

A series of lawsuits have been filed delaying enactment of the bill, but Heyne is hopeful it will roll out soon and be implemented in other states.

 

This is a 911 call from someone in the Fort Lauderdale airport during the shooting on January 6, 2017. The shooter was Esteban Santiago, an Iraq war veteran. 

 

Under President Obama, the Social Security Administration (SSA) implemented provisions of the 2007 National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act. This act allowed the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to report a person who they classified as “mentally defective” to the NICS to prevent them from obtaining a firearm unless the veteran is able to prove they do not pose a danger to themselves or others.

 

Under this system, if a veteran was appointed a fiduciary from the VA, they were labeled mentally incompetent and their name was sent to the FBI’s NICS, which could prohibit them from legally purchasing or owning a firearm. While they may apply for relief from this prohibition, the decision was in the hands of a VA bureaucrat not a judicial authority.

 

Andrew Gottlieb, director of outreach and development at the Second Amendment Foundation, thinks deeming someone mentally incompetent is walking a very fine line.

 

“Obviously, we have too many veterans committing suicide, [but] when you deem somebody mentally incompetent it becomes a huge issue,” Gottlieb said.

 

Furthermore, he does not like the idea of someone losing their rights when they admit they are having a problem.

 

“If someone seeks help [they] could lose their rights,” he said. “We’re encouraging people to not get help because of the punishment that comes with it. I don’t think someone should be punished for getting help.”

 

In 2014, 7,403 veterans committed suicide, averaging 21 suicides per day. Sixty-six percent of these suicides were perpetrated using firearms. Veteran suicides accounted for 18 percent of all suicides committed in the United States in 2014, according to a study by the Department of Veteran Affairs.

 

Veteran-Violence

 

“We have a public health crisis,” Heyne said. “We exist in a place where every year there are 100,000 people killed, wounded or maimed by guns and we aren’t doing anything about it. If it was a disease or car accidents, we would be all over it and right now, not only are we not all over it [but] we continue to see a push to stop any kind of regulation.”

 

In 1997, the CDC was banned from doing in-depth research on gun violence after the passage of the Omnibus Consolidated Appropriations Bill, also known as the Dickey Amendment. It was named after Jay Dickey, a Republican representative from Arkansas who proposed it in 1996 in response to the gun control debate heating up after the 1994 election and Clinton’s campaign on gun control legislation.

 

The bill contained clear and proscriptive language: “None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” This stipulation, along with the stripping of all funding to gun research, effectively banned gun violence research.

 

But Dickey never intended for the bill to be as far-reaching as it has become. Looking back, Dickey apologized for his actions.

 

“I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Dickey said to the Huffington Post in 2015.

 

In the wake of this bill, the CDC can only collect surveillance data (basically a count) on shootings. But the CDC’s gun research was never about gun control, according to CDC epidemiologist Cheryl Williams.

 

“It was never gun control [research],” Williams said. “The CDC is all about prevention of illness and injury. We don’t make regulations, we don’t enforce, we just say ‘here is the evidence, x, y, z causes x, y, z, and we recommend these guidelines.’”

 

On February 16, 2017 Representative David Roe, R-Tenn., introduced the Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act to Congress. This act, if passed by both the House and Senate and signed by the President, would block the VA from reporting these “mentally defective” veterans to NICS.

 

Upon the House’s passing of the bill, Rep. Roe released the following statement:

 

“I strongly believe we must do everything in our power to protect the rights guaranteed to all Americans, especially the men and women who have served, by the Constitution. The Veterans 2nd Amendment Protection Act does just that. I’m proud to stand with my colleagues in passing this important legislation that ensures no veteran who utilizes a fiduciary will lose their Second Amendment rights without due process.”

 

The Department of Veteran Affairs’ acting deputy assistant secretary James Hutton offered the following statement in response to the bill’s passage.

 

“The Bill passed the House, but it’s really not a VA issue, because VA does not maintain the NICS list, but rather the Department of Justice does. VA is required to comply with the laws as they stand at any given time. At this point, the new Bill must still go to the Senate and if passed in any form, would then go to the President for signature or veto.

 

It’s important to point out that VA sends out a letter to Veterans who are proposed to have their names submitted to NICS. There’s a 60-day time frame before submission in order to allow the Veteran an opportunity to contest the submission. We commonly refer to this as a “Due Process” letter because it affords the Veteran his/her opportunity for due process.

 

VA makes every effort to provide the Veteran the opportunity to officially challenge submission to NICS and we take Veterans’ rights very seriously.”

 

 

The act concerns Heyne and the CSGV. There is an important component of this vote that is not being talked about; the Republicans brought this bill forward through a Congressional Review Act, which basically says “we are going to overturn this bill and make it so it can never be voted on again,” according to Heyne.

 

“Rather than just throwing the rule out, let’s make it better,” Heyne said. “Whereas Republicans chose to throw it out and never deal with it again.”

 

This move could set a dangerous precedent.

 

Emily Hamm, President of American University’s Democrats is a sophomore from Sacramento, California.

 

“I don’t think never voting on it [veteran gun ownership] again, on any issue, is a good idea,” Hamm said. “We have a living, breathing constitution and need to adhere to it.”

 

While the CSGV was neutral on the vote, they saw flaws in how the Obama administration created the process to disqualify a veteran from owning a weapon.

 

“Our problem with the rule was [the way it was] written,” Heyne said. “The only determination they were using [for gun ownership] was a mental illness qualifier. If you look at the research, mental illness is not a huge indicator of future acts of violence. Research shows only about four percent of violence in this country is solely due to mental illness.”

 

Currently, somewhere between 168,000 and 174,000 veterans have been prohibited from purchasing weapons because of their mental illness.

 

“What we feel is grossly irresponsible is that we think that they would just blanketly [sic] give gun rights back to this at-risk group of veterans,” Heyne said.

 

Veterans have weapons training as part of their service, but this may not be useful knowledge for someone with a mental illness.

 

“Will veterans with PTSD be safe having a weapon in their home?” Hamm asked. “Many of them know their way around a weapon, but is that always a good thing? There comes a point that while you [a veteran] know what you’re doing, that may not be a good thing.”

 

“If you’re trying to give gun rights back to this population, you need to have an individualized process to prevent putting guns back in the hands of people who can potentially hurt themselves,” Heyne said.

 

“This is a nonpartisan issue,” Hamm said. “Gun safety is something every American should care about because it’s one of the leading causes of death.”

 

Even from the other side, Gottlieb agrees.

 

“We never want to see someone killed or shot,” he said.

 

Despite his wins in California and his work in Washington D.C. since coming to CSGV, Heyne will never escape what brought him to the table.

 

“My wife will never even have the opportunity to meet my mother because we allowed a dangerous individual access to guns for… I still don’t know why,” he said. “My mom will never know her grandchildren.”

 

A Conversation on Venezuela’s Growing Crisis (Updated)

By: Antoinette D’Addario

congressionalhearing

On Thursday March 2, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations evaluated the precarious state of Venezuela under current dictator, Nicolás Maduro. The committee, chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., heard testimony from witnesses and discussed what actions the United States should take in coming months to aid the South American nation in preparation for their presidential election next April.

In his opening statement, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, called the situation in Venezuela a “man-made calamity.”

“It’s a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis, with broken down hospitals, people starving in the streets [and] an economy that’s in shambles. This is a failing state, make no mistake about it,” he said.

Cardin accused the Venezuelan government of corruption.

“There’s one person who is responsible for this and that is President Maduro,” Cardin said.

“He’s denying basic rights to its [Venezuela’s] citizens. Their electoral rights are being very much compromised. He’s stripped the legislature of its constitutional authority. He has political prisoners now numbering in the hundreds. And equally disturbing he is administering a government that is full of corruption.”

“What is extremely disheartening is that Venezuela’s oil well is being taken for corruption. What is even more tragic is that, while people are starving, the government’s making money off of the food distribution; stealing food from its people in order to fuel the corruption of the government. We need to take action,” Cardin said.

The first witness to testify was Dr. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

“Venezuelans are suffering from a government that has radically mismanaged their economy and society and is blocking all democratic and constitutional efforts at change,” he said.

However, he believes there is hope if bilateral and multi-lateral diplomacy methods are used.

The second witness was Mark Feierstein who works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He cited the exodus of Venezuelans to ill-prepared neighboring nations and political prisoners who are held without charges.

“Venezuelans are already fleeing to Colombia, Brazil and Caribbean neighbors and a larger refugee crisis is likely,” he said. “Scores of political prisoners sit in jail for exercising their rights to express themselves freely and assemble peaceably.”

He suggested the only way to affect permanent change is from inside Venezuela, external powers cannot impose policies. Feierstein encouraged the Trump administration to “continue Obama policies and charters on Venezuela, including voting and political pressures.”

“The Trump administration should encourage other nations to join the United States in imposing sanctions on Venezuelan officials for engaging in massive corruption, abusing human rights and dismantling democracy,” Feierstein said.

“The President’s attacks on the press, the American judiciary and critics of his administration have eroded the moral authority of the United States. And the administration’s alienation of our closest allies, including Mexico, has undermined our ability to organize international efforts in Venezuela. Unless the President alters his position, domestically and internationally, the United States will sideline itself diplomatically and the case for democracy and human rights may fall to other nations.”

The final witness to testify was Dr. Shannon O’Neil, a Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She claimed Venezuela is in an unprecedented crisis, with a majority of its population in penury and their democracy has fallen to authoritarianism. O’Neil discouraged unilateral measures by the United States and encouraged it to use the Organization of American States (OAS) as a venue to focus efforts. The OAS was established in 1948 to create order among member states.

“On sanctions, the United States should use targeted individual sanctions against government wrongdoers. And as opposed to blanket sanctions, which would hurt the larger [Venezuelan] population, these targeted efforts are more effective in circumscribing the lives and livelihoods of the guilty. And they are the right thing to do, upholding our domestic and international laws,” O’Neil said.

“Multilateral initiatives are potentially more fruitful as a means to influence Venezuela. This will mean working behind the scenes to galvanize opposition and condemnation for the Maduro regime. This will be more effective than US efforts alone as it will be much harder for the Venezuelan government to dismiss the criticisms and the actions of its American neighbors as imperialist overreach.”

She advocated for the OAS to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela to return democracy. The Inter-American Democratic Charter affirms that democracy is, and should be, the common form of government for all countries of the Americas and represents a collective commitment to maintaining and strengthening the democratic system in the region, according to oas.org.

“This US should call on the OAS to invoke the Inter-American Charter to evaluate Venezuela and its democratic credentials and its compliance with them. This could lead potentially to sanctions and suspension from this multilateral body.”

O’Neil warned the dissolution of the Maduro regime will lead to chaos in Venezuela, particularly a wave of refugees. She supports aiding neighboring nations with money and supplies and helping Venezuela restructure their failing economy by renegotiating their $140 billion debt.

“Venezuela’s fate matters for the United States as it affects economics, security and democracy in the Western Hemisphere,” O’Neil said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. asked the witnesses as to the potential ability of terrorist organizations to infiltrate Venezuela and pose a security threat to the United States. Dr. Smilde said there is no substance to rumors of terrorists entering and setting up shop in Venezuela.

Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-N.J., stated it is “past time for the democratic charter to be called into play, but to actually be put into action. If Venezuela is not a place where the democratic charter is going to be invoked and actually pursued by the countries of the hemisphere, the charter is really of no consequence.”

If opposition is able to mobilize internally if we’re able to apply additional sanctions and ideally to multilateralize them and if we’re able to mobilize actors in the OAS to invoke the charter and threaten the suspension of Venezuela from the OAS, I think then there would be greater prospects for a positive outcome in Venezuela,” Feierstein responded.

Multilateral solutions became a theme of the meeting, with all three witnesses arguing that unilateral actions would have little effect on Venezuela.

Menéndez questioned the witnesses about the recent deal made by Rosneft and Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., a Venezuelan petroleum company, which also owns Citgo. The deal put PDVSA’s stock up as collateral; should it default on its payments, Rosneft would gain 49.9 percent stake in Citgo and could possibly purchase Citgo bonds from the open market. This could give it majority stake in Citgo and put it in charge of US energy infrastructure. The economic committee “should be proactive and begin to investigate this,” Dr. O’Neil argued.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who voted against greater sanctions towards Venezuela in March 2014, asked if greater US sanctions could lead to “Cubanization” of the Venezuelan problem. Dr. Smilde replied the situations in the two nations are different, as Venezuela has a greater history of democracy and the sanctions in Venezuela have been more targeted than they were in Cuba. “I don’t think sanctions are going to be effective and facilitate a democratic transition. What I do think would be effective is the region comes together, if there’s coordinated efforts among these regional partners and multilateral agencies and they come together with some sort of similar criteria,” said Smilde.

“Does the policy of the new administration; does that have any impact on our ability to move other partners in the region to try and help address what is happening in Venezuela?” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked.

Feierstein responded it is having a negative impact and Mexico is an important player in the region, and the new administration’s position has revived the north/south dynamic that has been absent for decades.

“Overall the extent to which we are offending allies is going to cut into our ability to intervene, not only in Venezuela but more broadly as well,” he said.

Sen. Shaheen also asked what American leadership on Venezuela would look like. Dr. O’Neil said it would be “most effective if it’s other countries that are leading out front,” allowing neighboring nations to help Venezuela with minimal intrusion by the United States.

As the meeting was wrapping up, Sen. Rubio, R-Fla., took time to characterize the Venezuelan situation and opposition to the rest of the committee and the audience.

“This is not a civil war, it’s not Syria. The opposition we’re talking about happens to be the majority party in the national assembly. That’s what we’re talking about… The opposition is not a guerrilla group who is armed out in the mountains attacking the troops. These are elected individuals, the majority,” he said.

His asked witnesses if the main goal to focus on is the OAS invoking the charter on Venezuela, to which all witness agreed.

In his final remarks, Sen. Cardin stated the United States, and other countries in the region “need to engage, [they] don’t need to isolate.”

“It would be quite a breakthrough in these countries if Venezuela would return to a full democracy,” Sen. Corker concluded.

No further action was taken on the Venezuelan matter at this time.

 

More Guns, Less Violence (Updated)

 

 

By: Antoinette D’Addario

 

 

Growing up in liberal Monmouth, New Jersey, Annamarie Rienzi’s conservative ideals, particularly about gun ownership, were often out of place. Being a woman and person of color, she is someone the gun lobby wants on their side. Rienzi, a junior studying political science, became involved with Young Americans for Liberty after working on the Rand Paul 2016 Presidential campaign. Young Americans for Liberty is a national pro-liberty organization with chapters at college campuses across the United States and supports the principles of liberty, small government and constitutionalism. Rienzi became involved with Yong Americans for Liberty after the Students for Rand organization at American University ended with the conclusion of his 2016 presidential bid. She now serves as the DC state chair for Young Americans for Liberty.

Rienzi says she was drawn to the Second Amendment debate, in large part due to the amount of misinformation surrounding the issue.

“You know, people think ‘oh we protect the Second Amendment because we like to hunt’ or … ‘we want to protect ourselves against robbers or murderers but really it’s all about protecting yourself from a tyrannical government should one come about,” Rienzi said.

According to Rienzi, the gun debate is particularly important for college students because, she says, college campuses are ripe targets for shootings and unstable people with guns. Particularly in the District, a liberal city, she said she believes it is important to have the facts and keep in mind how one would respond to a situation if a gun was present.

“We have to keep in mind if there was a shooter on campus and I have no access to a gun, I certainly can’t bring one into the district, how I would react [in] that situation?” she asked.

Rienzi sees potential for expanded gun rights and reduced gun violence under the new President, but she finds him inept when it comes to solving problems.

“He’s very good at identifying problems, but he’s not very good at how to fix them,” she said.

Rienzi found Trump’s suggestion to send the National Guard to Chicago to deal with the high crime rate alarming.

“That’s probably not the way that I’d go about fixing it. A lot of my advocacy actually has to do, in regards to the second amendment, with training people the right way to use guns safely,” she said.

One of the most difficult areas of the gun debate is the controversy over whether or not people with mental health issues should be allowed to own guns.

“I think that it’s extremely hard to argue against the fact that the most killings committed by guns [in America] are suicides,” Rienzi said.

She said she believes this issue should not be dealt with by regulating gun ownership, rather by mental health professionals.

“People aren’t getting the help they need,” she said. “The fact of the matter remains that they’ll probably be able to get the gun regardless [of their mental health].”

According to gunfacts.info, 93% of guns used in crimes are illegally obtained, meaning background checks and gun laws would not have prevented them from getting them.

“If I was writing the laws, I would agree with the age restriction,” she said. “But I would say that there shouldn’t be restrictions for mental health just because that’s such a slippery slope.”

She pointed to the growing number of young people being diagnosed with mental illnesses from ADHD and ADD to anxiety and depression. Moreover, the Constitution guarantees every American the right to own a gun, and Rienzi argued this right should never be infringed, regardless of a person’s mental health.

“I think that [mental health] definitely creates a bit of a problem, especially when the government, which the guns are supposed to be there to fight, are the ones drawing the line of where the mental health qualifier would be,” she said.

Rienzi does not deny that there is a gun problem in this country, particularly when it comes to mass shootings.

“I think that the idea of mass shootings is a tragedy is really something our country needs to face. When I hear someone say, ‘that’s not a problem in America’ that’s just flat out wrong,” she said.

“But I think that’s more representative of the amount of violence in the country as a whole and the amount of sadness and despondency in our populace and not so much a statement about the machines that we use to commit those acts of complete terror,” she said.

Despite the ability of guns to kill more people in a short period than most other weapons, Reinzi only sees one solution to the problem.

“I think that the only thing that could stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Gun Lobby Suffers Setback

By: Antoinette D’Addario

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Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes

On February 21 the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals dealt a blow to the gun lobby in their decision in Kolbe v. Hogan which chose to uphold Maryland’s ban on assault weapons. This decision overturns last year’s 2-1 decision by the Fourth Circuit panel to overturn the ban. The Fourth Circuit has now joined the Second, Ninth and D.C. circuits who have upheld similar bans in other states.

This decision furthers the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in the District of Columbia v. Heller which held in a 5-4 decision that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to own a firearm while striking down a provision prohibiting the ownership of handguns as well as requiring rifles and shotguns to be kept unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock when not in use. The Heller decision did not, however, deal with the questions of military-style weapons, leaving that to the states’ discretion.

Hannah Shearer, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, sees this decision as affirming states’ rights to make policy decisions and prevent assault weapon crimes. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence was founded after a rampage at the Pettit & Martin law firm in San Francisco in 1993.

“[It] has been a leader in gun violence prevention since its founding,” Shearer said.

After its establishment in California, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence expanded nationwide and now advises state legislatures on gun laws and Second Amendment issues. It recently merged with Americans for Responsible Solutions, an organization founded by former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot at an event in 2011.

There is potential for the gun lobby to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, although the chances of it being heard are slim.

“At least two justices have signaled they would be sympathetic to the case … [and] signaled they would decide the issue differently from the Fourth Circuit. No other justices have signaled they agree,” Shearer said.

While the Fourth Circuit encompasses Maryland and Virginia, the decision has no effect on the District of Columbia, as it has its own court of appeals. However, the D.C. circuit has upheld assault bans in the past, as indicated in their decision in Heller, which originally affirmed a ban on handguns.

“The Second Amendment envisions [that] certain weapons may be regulated within it as long as there’s enough room to keep hand guns in the home for self-defense.”

Going forward Shearer feels there needs to be more focus on taking weapons away from those who have lost their rights to own them.

“Many states don’t have a process of taking guns from people who have committed those [violent] crimes and aren’t allowed to possess guns anymore,” she said.

As argued in the court’s opinion, the goal of an assault weapon ban is to prevent mass casualties from a gun attack. The defendants appealed the original court decision on Second and Fourteenth Amendment grounds, arguing the ban infringed on an individual’s right to keep and bear arms as well as violated the equal protection and due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Judge King, writing for the majority, goes on to agree with the original court’s opinion and affirms their judgment with one divergence.

“We conclude – contrary to the now-vacated decision of our prior panel – that the banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not protected by the Second Amendment. That is, we are convinced that the banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are among those arms that are ‘like’ ‘M-16 rifles’ – ‘weapons that are most useful in military service’ – which the Heller Court singled out as being beyond the Second Amendment’s reach,” King said.

According to Shearer one of the pressing problems in today’s climate is the gun lobby’s pressing of more extreme views that aren’t shared by the majority of Americans, such as open carry in public spaces.

“I think most Americans strong oppose [open carry] and guns in schools and other sensitive public areas which have historically been considered safe havens from guns,” she said.

The Kolbe opinion studies the body of evidence surrounding assault weapons and their lethality. Deemed “lethal weapons of war,” which were designed to achieve one purpose – “killing or disabling the enemy on the battlefield.” These weapons were not intended for the civilian market due to their “capability for lethality – more wounds, more serious, in more victims,” according to the Kolbe opinion.

The upholding of the ban signals hope for the gun control movement.

“The state was making an informed choice,” Shearer said, “it’s not something they’re just doing without thinking it will have a real impact.”

 

A Conversation on Venezuela’s Growing Crisis

By: Antoinette D’Addario

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On Thursday March 2, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations met to discuss the failing state of Venezuela under current dictator, Nicolás Maduro. The committee, chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., heard testimony from witnesses and discussed what actions the United States should take in coming months to aid the South American nation.

In his opening statement, Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, called the situation a “man-made calamity.”

“It’s a heartbreaking humanitarian crisis, with broken down hospitals, people starving in the streets [and] an economy that’s in shambles. This is a failing state, make no mistake about it,” he said.

Cardin went on to accuse the Venezuelan government of corruption, particularly by profiting from the nation’s oil well while people are starving. He encouraged bipartisan legislature be authorized for humanitarian aid in Venezuela and the engagement of regional partners.

The first witness to testify was Dr. David Smilde, a Senior Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “Venezuelans are suffering from a government that has radically mismanaged their economy and society and is blocking all democratic and constitutional efforts at change,” he said. However, he believes there is hope if bilateral and multi-lateral diplomacy methods are used.

The second witness was Mark Feierstein who works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He cited the exodus of Venezuelans to ill-prepared neighboring nations and political prisoners who are held without charges. He suggested the only way to affect permanent change is from inside Venezuela, external powers cannot impose policies. Feierstein encouraged the Trump administration to “continue Obama policies and charters on Venezuela, including voting and political pressures.” Yet he finds the Trump administration poorly positioned to affect these changes, and unless Trump changes his position, the United States will sideline itself from these conversations.

The final witness to testify was Dr. Shannon O’Neil, a Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies. She claimed Venezuela is in an unprecedented crisis, with a majority of its population in penury and their democracy has fallen to authoritarianism. O’Neil discouraged unilateral measures by the United States and encouraged it to use the Organization of American States (OAS) as a venue to focus efforts. She advocated for the OAS to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Venezuela to return democracy. O’Neil warned the dissolution of the Maduro regime will lead to chaos in Venezuela, particularly a wave of refugees. She supports aiding neighboring nations with money and supplies and helping Venezuela restructure their failing economy by renegotiating their $140 billion debt.

“Venezuela’s fate matters for the United States as it affects economics, security and democracy in the Western Hemisphere,” O’Neil said.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. queried the witnesses as to the potential ability of terrorist organizations to infiltrate Venezuela and pose a security threat to the United States. Dr. Smilde said there is no substance to rumors of terrorists entering and setting up shop in Venezuela.

Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-N.J., stated it is “past time for the democratic charter to be called into play, but to actually be put into action. If Venezuela is not a place where the democratic charter is going to be invoked and actually pursued by the countries of the hemisphere, the charter is really of no consequence.”

 “If opposition is able to mobilize internally if we’re able to apply additional sanctions and ideally to multilateralize them and if we’re able to mobilize actors in the OAS to invoke the charter and threaten the suspension of Venezuela from the OAS, I think then there would be greater prospects for a positive outcome in Venezuela,” Feierstein responded.

 Multilateral solutions became a theme of the meeting, with all three witnesses arguing that unilateral actions would have little effect on Venezuela.

Menéndez questioned the witnesses about the recent deal made by Rosneft and PDVSA, a Venezuelan petroleum company, which also owns Citgo. The deal put PDVSA’s stock up as collateral; should it default on its payments, Rosneft would gain 49.9 percent of Citgo and could possibly purchase Citgo bonds from the open market. This could give it majority stake in Citgo and put it in charge of US energy infrastructure. The economic committee “should be proactive and begin to investigate this,” Dr. O’Neil argued.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who voted against greater sanctions towards Venezuela, asked if greater US sanctions could lead to “Cubanization” of the Venezuelan problem. Dr. Smilde replied the situations in the two nations are different, as Venezuela has a greater history of democracy and the sanctions in Venezuela have been more targeted than they were in Cuba. “I don’t think sanctions are going to be effective and facilitate a democratic transition. What I do think would be effective is the region comes together, if there’s coordinated efforts among these regional partners and multilateral agencies and they come together with some sort of similar criteria,” said Smilde.

“Does the policy of the new administration; does that have any impact on our ability to move other partners in the region to try and help address what is happening in Venezuela?” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked.

Feierstein responded it is having a negative impact and Mexico is an important player in the region, and the new administration’s position has revived the north/south dynamic that has been absent for decades. “Overall the extent to which we are offending allies is going to cut into our ability to intervene, not only in Venezuela but more broadly as well,” he said.

Sen. Shaheen also asked what American leadership on Venezuela would look like. Dr. O’Neil said it would be “most effective if it’s other countries that are leading out front,” allowing neighboring nations to help Venezuela with minimal intrusion by the United States.

As the meeting was wrapping up, Sen. Rubio, R-Fla., took a moment to characterize the Venezuelan situation and opposition.

“This is not a civil war, it’s not Syria. The opposition we’re talking about happens to be the majority party in the national assembly. That’s what we’re talking about… The opposition is not a guerrilla group who is armed out in the mountains attacking the troops. These are elected individuals, the majority,” he said.

His asked witnesses if the main goal to focus on is the OAS invoking the charter on Venezuela, to which all witness agreed.

In his final remarks, Sen. Cardin stated the United States, and other countries in the region “need to engage, [they] don’t need to isolate.”

“It would be quite a breakthrough in these countries if Venezuela would return to a full democracy,” Sen. Corker concluded.

More Guns, Less Violence

 

By: Antoinette D’Addario

 

Growing up in liberal Monmouth, New Jersey, Annamarie Rienzi’s conservative ideals, particularly about gun ownership, were often out of place. Being a woman and person of color, she is someone the gun lobby wants on their side. Rienzi, a junior studying political science, became involved with Young Americans for Liberty after working on the Rand Paul 2016 Presidential campaign. Young Americans for Liberty is a national pro-liberty organization with chapters at college campuses across the United States and purports the principles of liberty, small government and constitutionalism. Rienzi became involved with Yong Americans for Liberty after the Students for Rand organization at American University ended with the conclusion of his 2016 presidential bid. She now serves as the DC State Chair for Young Americans for Liberty.

 

Despite having never shot a gun, Rienzi was drawn to the Second Amendment debate, in large part due to the amount of misinformation surrounding the issue.

 

“You know, people think ‘oh we protect the second amendment because we like to hunt’ or … ‘we want to protect ourselves against robbers or murderers … but really it’s all about protecting yourself from a tyrannical government should one come about,” Rienzi said.

 

Looking to career opportunities, Rienzi said she believes Second Amendment advocacy is something she could be passionate about and consider a future in.

 

According to Rienzi, the gun debate is particularly important for college students because college campuses are ripe targets for shootings and unstable people with guns. Particularly in the District, a liberal city, she said she believes it is important to have the facts and keep in mind how one would respond to a situation if a gun was present.

 

“We have to keep in mind if there was a shooter on campus and I have no access to a gun, I certainly can’t bring one into the district, how I would react [in] that situation,” she asked.

 

Rienzi sees potential in the new President and his ability to ensure the Second Amendment is upheld, but she finds him inept when it comes to solving problems.

 

“He’s very good at identifying problems, but he’s not very good at how to fix them,” she said.

 

Referencing Chicago, Rienzi found his suggestion to send the National Guard to the city to deal with the high crime rate alarming. She argued it would be more beneficial to train people how to properly engage with guns rather than send in the armed forces to try and rectify the problem.

 

One of the most difficult areas of the gun debate is the controversy over whether or not people with mental health issues should be allowed to own guns.

 

“I think that it’s extremely hard to argue against the fact that the most killings committed by guns [in America] are suicides,” Rienzi said.

 

She believes this issue should not be dealt with by regulating gun ownership, rather by mental health professionals.

 

“People aren’t getting the help they need,” she said.

 

She further said she believes that, even with stricter gun laws, mentally ill people would likely still be able to get ahold off firearms, pointing out that the majority of gun crimes are committed by weapons that were illegally obtained. Furthermore, implementing a policy where anyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness is a slippery slope, according to Rienzi. She pointed to the growing number of young people being diagnosed with mental illnesses from ADHD and ADD to anxiety and depression. Moreover, the Constitution guarantees every American the right to own a gun, and Rienzi argued this right should never be infringed, regardless of a person’s mental health. She also expressed concern that the government, who guns are supposed to be there to protect oneself from, would be the one drawing the line for who can and cannot own a firearm.

 

However, Rienzi does not deny that there is a gun problem in this country, particularly when it comes to mass shootings.

 

“I think that the idea of mass shootings is a tragedy is really something our country needs to face. When I hear someone say, ‘that’s not a problem in America’ that’s just flat out wrong,” she said.

 

But she believes these crimes are a result of high levels of anger and despondency in the country. The only way, according to Rienzi, to lower these numbers, is to increase gun ownership.

 

“I think that the only thing that could stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”