In an era in which pro-gun advocates have been racking up a string of victories, Doug Pettit is trying to hit the brakes. The Oregon police chief, who serves as the legislative chairman for the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association, is one of the most vocal proponents of expanding background checks for gun buyers.
Pettit and his group are part of a national push by the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence, which hopes to convince federal lawmakers to mandate background checks on people who purchase guns at gun shows, flea markets and other venues that don’t involve licensed gun dealers.
How big a deal is that? The partnership says that about 40 percent of gun purchases fall outside background check requirements. So when you hear about record-breaking handgun purchases -- which are calculated using data from background checks -- you can calculate the actual number of new guns on the street by increasing the reported number by two-thirds.
Not only that, those who do go through background checks can slide through the cracks. Take Seung Hui Cho, who in 2007 killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. If state authorities there had submitted Cho’s mental health records to the background check system like they should have, Cho never would have passed the two background checks that paved the way for the massacre. Virginia now has one of the best compliance records in the nation, according to a group called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Pettit’s group is pushing for other states to follow suit.
Pettit is a hunter, a gun hobbyist, and he carries a gun on the job. But his push for what he considers reasonable gun regulations increases his visibility, and he’s being painted by some in the pro-gun crowd as an anti-gun zealot.
“I’m not very well-liked out there,” he says.
Pettit recently sat down to talk about his problems with background checks, the state’s hastily passed concealed carry law, and the failure of politicians to slow the agenda of the National Rifle Association and the rest of the pro-gun lobby.
Capital Times: At a time when politicians seem deaf to calls for gun control, why has the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence embarked on an effort to strengthen regulations?
Doug Pettit: The amount of guns that are making their onto the street through these secondary sales is threatening law enforcement. For the first time in a very long time, more law enforcement officers lost their lives through gun violence in 2011 than lost their lives in car crashes. Law enforcement across the county is seeing that we have to make an effort to stem this tide, so why not now? And if you’re going to try to influence politicians coming up for election, now would be the time.
CT: After the movie theater massacre in Colorado and the Sikh temple massacre in Oak Creek, you’d think politicians would be stepping forward. But no one’s really talking about bringing back the assault weapons ban or restricting the number of rounds in a clip, are they?
DP: After the Oak Creek shooting and the Colorado shooting, we still can’t seem to get politicians engaged in this issue. We can’t even get the president engaged in this issue, even though in the 2008 campaign he indicated that he would reinstate the assault weapons ban. As soon as the Colorado shooting occurred, we had individuals, even one of our own senators, come out and say we don’t need any more regulation. We don’t want to talk about the fact that he had a 100-round magazine, thousands of rounds of ammunition.
CT: Much of the recent successes of the pro-gun legislation, and the failure of politicians to talk about gun control, have been attributed to the efforts of the NRA. Why do they wield such power?
DP: I don’t understand that, because they don’t spend a lot of money compared to other special interest groups. Yet it seems to be that politicians are afraid of having them come after them. I’ve had politicians actually tell me that: “I’m not going to go there on this particular issue because I don’t want the NRA coming after me in my reelection.”
CT: A recent story that ran in our newspaper included an interview with Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn, who wants to amend the state’s concealed carry law to ban habitual criminals who have pleaded their felony charges down to misdemeanors. Flynn called a state senator about the issue and was given the number of an NRA lobbyist. What’s that say about the NRA’s clout?
DP: What Chief Flynn is calling for is an amendment of the law to catch what we think is a weakness in the law in terms of preventing criminals from possessing firearms. Obviously, if legislators are referring him to the lobbyist for the NRA to discuss a tweak, I don’t hold out a whole lot of hope that the Legislature’s going to take that amendment seriously.
CT: You have other problems with the concealed carry law, correct?
DP: Most residents, in polling, showed that they were in favor of much more training than ultimately ended up in the law. Yet apparently we’re not listening to the general public. We’re listening to a very small segment of special interest groups. One of the minimum training requirements is that at the age of 12 you received a hunter’s safety certificate to hunt deer or squirrels or rabbits, and now you’re 45 years old and that is sufficient for you to receive a concealed carry permit. That’s ludicrous.
CT: But you say your efforts and the efforts of the partnership don’t mean that you oppose concealed carry or the rights of Americans to purchase firearms.
DP: That law-abiding citizens should be able to have concealed carry, should be able to purchase firearms, I absolutely agree. But why are we afraid to vet those folks to make sure they’re law-abiding citizens? This is not about anti-gun. This is about putting reasonable restrictions in place to make sure that individuals, by current law, don’t access weapons if they’re prohibited from doing so. It isn’t any more difficult, complicated or sinister than that. I think the American public is behind that.