Buyback Blues

Gunmetal meets gray matter in gun tussle

The morning of Jan. 8 registered barely a breeze, which was rather curious given the hot air already expended about Tucson's gun buyback, just then getting underway at a midtown police substation.

In previous weeks, the guns-and-ammo crowd had worked itself into a froth over this event, threatening legal action to stop it and pledging to derail the removal of weapons from public circulation by offering cash for the good ones, in contrast to a measly $50 grocery gift card handed out by the city.

Regardless, by day's end the buyback would net some 200 assorted guns destined for the scrap heap.

It was part of an effort by Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik to address gun violence such as the Tucson rampage two years ago that left six people dead and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Or the recent massacre at a Connecticut elementary school where the shooter killed six staffers and 20 first-graders.

Along with Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, Kozachik is also pushing to let Tucson enact what he considers no-brainer laws, such as prohibiting guns in city parks.

While allowing jurisdictions to decide their own gun policies would seem to jibe with Arizona's conservative political culture—where state lawmakers constantly decry outside meddling by the federal government—that hands-off philosophy somehow vanishes in the tough desert between Tucson and the statehouse in Phoenix. Instead, Republican legislators have steadily stymied this city's gun regulation efforts.

Nonetheless, on the same day as the buyback, Kozachik and Uhlich introduced a nonbinding council "memorial" asking the Arizona Legislature to repeal its "preemption of the local regulation of firearms."

Contacted earlier by phone, Kozachik said the memorial "sends a message to Phoenix that 'we're not your servants.' We hear a different set of voices here and we want to reserve the right to draw local firearms ordinances that apply legitimate time, manner and place restrictions on where you can carry firearms, based on what we hear from our constituents."

But history doesn't bode well for that effort. The state constitution was drafted in 1910, and Arizona has been in the vanguard of steadily expanding gun rights ever since. Even the modest controls of Arizona's frontier towns were eventually swept away, under the stance that they violated the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

State lawmakers have also played decisive roles in fighting federal gun legislation, including the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act—better known as the Brady Bill—so named for President Ronald Reagan's press secretary, who was shot in the head during a 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan. Among other things, the act established a database known as the National Instant Background Check System, which is supposed to contain the names of people who are not eligible to purchase firearms.

In 1994, the state Legislature passed a law permitting residents to carry concealed weapons—as along as they were also toting a state-issued permit. In 2000, then-National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston was invited to give the legislative session's opening invocation.

More recent sessions saw the passage of bills allowing possession of concealed weapons without permits or training, designation of a state handgun—the Colt single-action Army revolver—and strengthening of the ability of people to defend their homes or vehicles with firearms.

The Legislature also passed measures that block cities and towns from banning hunting within their boundaries (except in proximity to occupied structures), prohibit them from enacting gun ordinances more restrictive than state law, and ensure the right of citizens to carry guns in parks and preserves.

While many local leaders consider these laws a state power grab, that power may actually may lie with gun rights lobbyists such as Todd Rathner, who works the Legislature on behalf of the NRA. Hearing Rathner describe the cascade of preemptive laws emerging from that body makes it sound as though his group simply runs the statehouse—just as many believe it does.

He recalls efforts dating back to July 2000, when the Legislature passed a measure designating the state as the preeminent authority on gun laws. Since then, each time Tucson tests a loophole in the statute, the Legislature and Rathner tighten it even more. "We've spent the past 13 years tweaking, tuning and adjusting that amendment," he says. "When the city wanted to ban gun shows, the NRA took them to court."

When that lawsuit failed, "we went back to tweak the law to say they can't ban gun shows at the Tucson Convention Center." And when the city tried to enact background checks at gun shows, "we tweaked the law and said they couldn't do that.

"We've been working on this for over a decade, perfecting it," Rathner says. "And every time Tucson steps out of line, we gotta smack their hand and fix it."

That omnipotence seems to have taken a toll. Despite lots of chatter, no one appears poised to introduce a bill restoring Tucson's gun-restriction abilities. "And I know that if somebody did, it's not going through this majority," says Steve Farley, a state senator representing District 9.

Such mundane matters as restricting guns from local parks "should be within the ability of someone in the local municipality to do that," Farley says. "But sadly, our Legislature hasn't agreed."

The same intransigence lingered among attendees of the Jan. 8 buyback, as some 30 police officers kept tabs on the crowd and processed forfeited weapons. Among those in line was Jack Allen, a retired commercial airline pilot who was surrendering his .410 gauge shotgun.

"I'm getting it out of the house," he said. "I want to be part of the program with Kozachik in getting rid of the guns."

Others felt differently, in a charged atmosphere rife with rumors. Off to one side stood Brian Sanford and his wife, Nicole, who hoisted signs protesting the buyback. "It's a political stunt," Brian Sanford said. "Maybe they've proved that by turning away a non-serialized gun, which is much more dangerous than ones that have serial numbers. One man said the cops wouldn't let him (turn in his gun) because it doesn't have a serial number."

When I asked a nearby officer whether that was true, he raised an eyebrow. No guns would be turned away that day, he said, whether they bore serial numbers or not.

But even before the event began, such fear-mongering had Councilman Kozachik shaking his head. "All the buyback does is give you the opportunity to properly dispose of your gun with TPD," he said by phone. "Big deal."

"Despite all the crap that I'm taking from these guys, the fact that this community is so engaged in the topic just affirms to me that this is the right time to have this conversation. ...Nobody is talking about disarming the citizenry. It's a totally voluntary buyback of a firearm that you don't want."