By Jack Molitor
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
“It’s constitutionally protected.”
“It’s a God-given right.”
“Guns don’t kill people.”
These phrases are popular among proponents of gun ownership.
The Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights states: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
Recent high-profile incidents involving firearms have thrown the meaning and wisdom of those maxims into controversy. The incidents have mobilized legions of opponents and proponents of gun-control and prompted a legislative arms race.
Gun stores can barely keep inventory on the shelf, and an underworld of illicit gun sales has emerged thanks to legislative loopholes and conflicting rules across state lines. In the fray, law enforcement agencies are working to stay a step ahead of an increasingly-armed public.
And people continue to be killed with guns.
In January 2011, Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head during a constituent meeting in a supermarket parking lot in Tucson. Six were killed in the shooting.
In July 2012, 12 people were killed and 58 injured in an Aurora, Colo., theater. A sole gunman, dressed in tactical gear and loaded with ammunition, cut down swaths of people watching a movie premiere.
In December 2012, Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six adults with ruthless efficiency at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Lanza also killed his mother and himself.
As the killings mount, a high-fear, low-trust atmosphere has emerged in America. In Madison County, as elsewhere across the country, the public has been left with a fundamental question: Should all guns be as accessible as they are?
President Barack Obama unveiled a historic proposal in January, the most strident gun control policy reform in a generation. The changes would make criminal background checks compulsory, eliminate armor-piercing rounds, provide mental health services in schools, limit ammunition magazine capacities and ban assault weapons.
A recent Gallup poll indicates a narrow majority of Americans approve of most of the proposed measures, with the exception being the ban on assault weapons. The proposals have drawn the ire of the gun lobby giant National Rifle Association. The NRA has been an outspoken critic of nearly every gun control measure of the past decade, and spokesman Wayne LaPierre counter-proposed better education on guns and a robust system of armed guards at schools and public places to stem the increase in violence.
Locally, business owner and NRA member Jay Stapleton feels extremists on both sides of the argument have turned the debate ugly.
“A gun is a deadly weapon, and deadly force should only be used as a last resort,” Stapleton said. “If you’re not in imminent danger, you don’t have a right to fill someone full of holes because they’re on your property ... if you’re not in danger.”
But Stapleton, like most Second Amendment supporters, believes curtailing gun rights of law-abiding citizens will only affect people who follow the rules.
On the other side of the issue, Andrea Spiegelberg doesn’t think it’s a question of taking guns away, but rather a closer examination of what we do and don’t need.
Spiegelberg, a mother and activist from Fishers, is the chairperson of the Indianapolis Chapter of One Million Moms 4 Gun Control, a group founded by Zionsville-resident Shannon Watts to fight aggressively for increased gun control.
“Guns are part of our history. We’re a colonial country, and they’ve been used for hunting and self-defense throughout history, and that’s fine,” Spiegelberg said. “Unfortunately, the laws in our country give people a chance to accumulate so much more than what they need.”
Spiegelberg said there are many responsible gun owners who are supportive of her organization and supportive of gun regulations.
“It’s time we untied the hands of our lawmakers and officials and really start acting,” Spiegelberg said. “Our organization wants to be about more than discussion: We want action.”
Local gun violence
Betty Dietrich has lived a mostly peaceful life. She’s never really been around guns. Not that she has a problem with guns; she just never felt the need for one.
But a tragedy last summer made her family an American portrait of domestic violence. And gun violence.
On June 9, Dietrich’s granddaughter, Amanda Wiles, was shot in the head and killed by Roy Parmley in Wiles’ house near Lapel. Parmley shot Amanda in front of her mother Terri Wiles, who had ended a relationship with Parmley.
Dietrich said she’s not well-versed on the gun control issue, but she doesn’t think guns are inherently bad.
“I’m not afraid of guns, and I don’t think it’s bad that people have guns,” Dietrich said. “I think it’s evil people that make them bad.”
At the same time, Dietrich said she sees the need for some level of gun control.
“I see our military using some of the weapons they’re talking about outlawing, and I honestly don’t understand why people need to be using guns like that,” Dietrich said. “We have guns to protect ourselves. There’s a lot of violence, and I feel we have the right to protect ourselves. But I don’t think we need those kinds of guns.”
According to police reports, Parmley allegedly bound both women and told Terri he would “take away something dear” to her before shooting Amanda. Parmley’s body was found later, and police suspect he committed suicide after the shooting.
One of the questions posed repeatedly after the recent mass shootings is how mental healthcare can be made more accessible. In nearly every instance, the shooter or suspected shooter is discovered to have a history of mental instability, leading many to conclude that the issue isn’t about the guns.
Dietrich said Parmley was a deeply troubled and controlling man. She said he suffered from alcoholism and had anger issues. Could he have benefited from mental healthcare? Would Amanda be alive today if he had?
“Maybe,” Dietrich said. “It could’ve helped him. I honestly don’t know. He had lots of issues. The man who killed Mandy was an evil man. To kill a human being, to kill children — something has to be wrong.”
American love affair
Why are guns so important to Americans?
At a ratio of nearly a gun to every person, according to the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, Switzerland, America is the most armed populace in history. A distant second is India, a country boasting three times America’s population. The Second Amendment is a right, but it’s not a reason.
Put simply, America has a love affair with guns, Stapleton said. He likens it to the same love affair Americans have historically had with automobiles. Like guns, automobiles are more prevalent in America than any other country in the world. Like automobiles, guns helped build America into a world leader.
“So if you think about it like that, we have a love affair with automobiles, and we’ve had guns much longer,” Stapleton said. “We all want the freedom to use them however we want, whenever we want. They’re part of our history.”
One of the side effects of recent shootings, introduction of President Obama’s gun control proposal and backlash from the NRA include an increase in guns sales across the country, and Indiana is no different. The market has been flooded with firearms.
According to the FBI, the number of criminal background requests from Indiana gun retailers has ballooned from 187,000 in 2007 to 346,000 in 2012. The number is up nearly double since the time before Obama took office.
“We’ve been here for almost 25 years, and this has happened about three or four times,” said Mike Clevenger, owner of Crack Shot guns on 53rd Street in Anderson. “Anytime there’s a call to enact legislation against the Second Amendment, this happens.”
Clevenger’s business can hardly keep product in stock. Shelves in his store rest bare and as soon as he gets shipments in, they’re moving out the door in the hands of new owners.
“It’s the atmosphere of the public,” Clevenger said. “When people feel like they’re in danger of losing their guns or feel threatened, we get really busy.”
It’s much the same on the other side of town at Buck Shot Guns on Meridian Street. Owner Mark Cole, who’s also an Anderson Police Department detective, said sales are through the roof for every product.
Cole thinks people are looking for safety in unsafe times.
“Across the country, police stations are cutting manpower, home invasions are up, there are drug problems and police are stretched thin,” Cole said. “A lot of people are buying guns because they don’t want to have to wait for police in case something happens.”
Clevenger said the most popular items have been semi-automatic handguns, simple to use and popular for home protection.
Sales are up, but Clevenger said he won’t sell to everybody. Like all legally run gun stores, Crack Shot and Buck Shot run FBI background checks on potential buyers. The checks take a month to six weeks to process, and there’s a fee. Marks like criminal convictions and incidents of domestic violence help determine whether the buyer is approved.
Even if the background check is passed, Clevenger said, he wouldn’t, and hasn’t, hesitated to turn down applicants he finds suspicious.
“That’s a judgement call for us,” Clevenger said. “Someone may say something or might not act right, and we won’t sell to them.”
He noted that background checks can’t include mental health history unless someone has been adjudicated as mentally defective, and he doesn’t see that changing with new laws.
“I wish we could see in everyone’s mind before we sold them a gun, but that’s not going to happen,” Clevenger said. “I don’t see how any law is going to change that.”
For someone without a criminal history, obtaining a firearm in Indiana is a simple process.
Once someone passes a background check, they can purchase any legal firearm. Handguns taken into public require a carry permit, which can be obtained at a local police department or sheriff’s department and is processed at the state level.
Rifles and larger guns do not require a carry permit.
The Anderson Police Department processed 672 carry permit applications in 2012, nearly doubling a tally of 394 in 2011. Increases came after both the Colorado shooting and the Connecticut shooting.
Anderson Police Chief Larry Crenshaw said gun ownership is a right, not a privilege, and he does everything he can to make sure someone who wants a gun and is entitled to one is allowed to get one.
“However, if someone has been arrested or been looked at a few times, even if he isn’t convicted of a crime, we have to take a second look at that,” Crenshaw said.
Prior to the Connecticut shooting, Madison County Sheriff Ron Richardson said his department processed about 10 gun permits a week. After the shooting, in just the seven business days remaining in the year, the department processed 80 applications.
After just 20 business days in 2013, the department reported an additional 197 applications.
Richardson, a former member of the NRA and a hunter, said he’s in favor of making communities as safe as possible, but that responsible ownership shouldn’t be threatened by the actions of others.
Federal law requires criminal background checks for licensed firearm dealers like Clevenger and Cole. However, according to the FBI, sales from licensed dealers account for only about 60 percent of all gun transactions in the United States.
Other sales come from gun shows, which are unregulated in 33 states, including Indiana, and allow purchases without background checks. Only six states require universal background checks at gun shows.
In a Feb. 17 case believed by police to be gang-related, college student David Lewisbey of Indiana was arrested after allegedly attending gun shows in Indiana, loading up a duffel bag with purchased guns and then passing them on to his alleged accomplice, Levaine Tanksley, for sale in Chicago, where gun laws are far more stringent.
The Internet is another avenue for gun sales. More than 4,000 websites offer guns for sale, according to the Department of Justice. It is illegal for guns to be bought and sold unless the transaction occurs between a legally screened owner and a licensed seller. But Americans have found work-arounds.
Online gun dealers were linked to both the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that killed 32 people and the mass shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008 that left five dead.
Guns and safety
According to a 2005 Gallup poll, 67 percent of gun owners said having guns made them feel safer in their homes, and a plurality of 47 percent of Americans in the same poll agreed that having a gun in the home makes them safer.
But are you really safer?
Strictly by numbers, having a gun in your home significantly increases your risk of death.
According to information from the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, the opportunity for a law-abiding gun owner to use a gun in self defense will happen perhaps once or never in a lifetime. Many more opportunities will arise for regular gun use to result in an accident.
Guns kept in the home for self-protection are 43 times more likely to kill a family member, friend or acquaintance than to kill an intruder, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Guns on the street make us less safe. For every justifiable handgun homicide, there are more than 50 handgun murders, according to the FBI.
Still, proponents of gun rights say they feel safer when they are armed. They argue that one opportunity in a lifetime could make the difference.
But some gun owners and supporters of the Second Amendment agree it might be time for tighter laws.
Doug Watkins of Anderson owns guns and said he simply loves to shoot for fun. But when regular people can’t even go to the movies without worrying about a tragedy, something needs to change, Watkins said.
“We probably need a little more accountability, especially with the larger magazines,” Watkins said.
One possible solution could be to manage gun use similar to car use, Watkins said. He proposes basic licenses for basic firearms, and increasing restrictions and more expensive ammunition for more exotic weapons.
What police face
“There’s a potential for that, but it really depends on each scenario,” Crenshaw said, when asked whether local police are sometimes outgunned by suspects.
Crenshaw said he’s working to change traditional methods of dealing with crime in an increasingly unconventional world. It’s not enough to train public safety officers in static, unchanging conditions.
“That’s not real life,” Crenshaw said. “We’re trying to train our officers in combat-type shooting and high-stress conditions because that’s the potential.”
All Anderson police officers wear bullet-proof vests while on duty. These provide protection from most handguns, but not military-style machine guns.
Crenshaw said his officers have good protection, but it’s impossible to be completely protected.
“Does the danger exist? Yes. Will laws reduce it? Maybe. But criminals act irrationally,” the Anderson police chief said.
Find Jack Molitor on Facebook and @AggieJack4 on Twitter, or call 640-4883.