Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Gun control activists nationwide are pressuring newspapers to stop accepting legal classified advertising of firearms for sale by private citizens. Advocates of gun owners' rights said Thursday that anti-gun forces apparently aren't content with ignoring the Second Amendment and now want to ignore the First Amendment as well.
"The issue is not guns, but the way guns are sold," claimed John Johnson, coordinator of the so-called National Campaign to Close the Newspaper Loophole, in a press release Wednesday. "In an age of increasing concern for public safety, we find it difficult to defend a newspaper's part in the private sale of firearms by unlicensed sellers without a criminal background check of the would-be buyer."
The campaign acknowledges that it is completely legal for private citizens to sell guns to other private citizens but wants to use privately owned newspapers to inhibit such sales.
"We recognize that classified ads for guns are perfectly legal under federal and [your State] state law," the campaign writes in a sample letter for activists to send to newspaper publishers. "But just because something is legal doesn't mean that it is good policy."
Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, first disputed the campaign's use of the word "loophole" in its name.
"'Loophole' is Washington-ese for 'freedom,'" Pratt said. "And some of these folks would probably be happier if we got rid of all of the 'loopholes' in the Constitution because that would entail getting rid of the Bill of Rights."
Ted Novin, spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), dismissed the campaign's efforts.
"This is an annual exercise by a politically irrelevant gun-ban group to circumvent the legislative process and curtail the sale of a perfectly legal product by law-abiding Americans," he said.
While enemies of the Second Amendment have mostly been unsuccessful in convincing elected legislative bodies to curtail the rights of gun owners, this campaign has seen some victories, according to its website. Since it began in November 2001, the Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Miami Herald, Sandusky (Ohio) Register, Willoughby (Ohio) News-Herald, Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph-Herald, Houston Chronicle and, most recently, the Dallas Morning News have limited classified advertising of guns for sale by private citizens at the campaign's request.
Campaign cites case of white supremacist
As justification for opposing classified advertising of guns for sale by private citizens, the campaign highlights the case of Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, a member of a white supremacist group, who illegally tried to buy two 9mm handguns and a shotgun from a federally licensed gun dealer in Peoria Heights, Ill., on June 23, 1999.
"The purchase was denied by the dealer after a background check revealed that Smith was under a court restraining order secured by an ex-girlfriend," the campaign reports on its website. "Three days later, Smith purchased two guns...from [a private citizen] through a classified ad...in the Peoria Journal Star newspaper."
Smith later used those guns to kill two people and wound nine others in Illinois and Indiana. But the campaign fails to mention that federal law makes it illegal to even attempt to purchase a firearm if the intended buyer is disqualified from such a purchase. Smith was not arrested for that crime, which left him free to obtain the other weapons he purchased.
Neal Knox, chairman of the Firearms Coalition, believes Smith could have easily found similar guns on the black market even if classified advertising of guns had been banned by the local newspaper.
"It'd make it, maybe, a little bit more difficult," Knox said. "It's going to irritate him but - as far as not being able to buy illegally - no, it's not going to affect him."
That having been said, Knox believes he understands the motivation behind the campaign.
"It makes people like these 'close the loophole' types, it makes them feel better," he said. "They think that they will have cut off another point of access."
But Pratt compared the premise - that banning classified advertising of private gun sales would hinder criminal access to weapons - to similar theories behind Britain's gun laws.
"England has banned all the legal handguns, they're just gone. And yet, criminals have mostly handguns, some 3,000,000 of them, police estimate," Pratt explained. "So, if you can't keep guns out of the wrong hands on an island with a total handgun ban and on virtually every other gun, then I'm just not impressed with anything that the gun controllers are going to try to do."
Campaign accused of 'stepping all over the First Amendment'
Gary Mehalik, director of communications for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the problems he perceives with the campaign extend beyond its Second Amendment implications.
"I see this as stepping all over the First Amendment," he said. "The mischaracterized 'gun show loophole' is now being called a 'classified gun ad loophole,' and soon, it will be a 'free commerce loophole' because what's being proposed is the cessation of the American way of doing business."
Anti-gun activists coined the term "gun show loophole" to denigrate lawful sales between private citizens that occur at gun shows. Second Amendment opponents have worked for years to require buyers to submit their names, addresses and other personal information to the FBI's National Instant Check System (NICS) before being allowed to make a purchase.
Some shooting enthusiasts fear their opponents will try to use the NICS system to create a national registry of gun owners as a precursor to confiscation attempts. They point to New York City and California as examples of jurisdictions that have registered gun owners, promising not to infringe on their rights, but later used those registries to confiscate lawfully purchased firearms.
What about classified ads for 'getaway cars' and 'arson tools?'
Mehalik also wondered why the campaign is not targeting other products routinely offered for private sale through classified ads.
"The fact of the matter is: Every day, newspapers carry advertisements for products and services that criminals might misuse," he continued. "They sell 'getaway cars' in the used car section, 'arson tools' in the sports section, whether it be lighters or gasoline or waterproof matches for sportsmen. There's lots of stuff that can be misused."
The reason those products aren't being targeted, both Pratt and Knox argue, is because cars and fires are "politically correct," while guns are not.
"This is one of the incremental ways that people who don't believe we ought to be able to protect ourselves with guns are endeavoring to get rid of our guns," Pratt said. "Along the way, they'll also try to make it expensive to own guns [and] to store guns."
Knox stressed that the campaign's members are entitled to their opinions but should not be allowed to force those beliefs on others or to coerce newspapers into submitting to their agenda.
"If they don't want to have a gun, that's their business. I'm not going to tell them they have to have one," Knox said. "But they don't have any business telling me or my wife or my daughters that they cannot defend themselves. And that's what it's all about."
The consensus among the Second Amendment advocates contacted by CNSNews.com was that gun owners who want to sell their firearms and potential buyers will meet face to face at shooting ranges and other venues, or contact one another through the Internet to conduct private sales. The only long-term effect they predicted from the campaign was a loss of advertising revenue for the newspapers that participate.
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