The Smoking Gun

In Arizona, the firearms lobby usually wins — despite the public's desires

America certainly has no deficit of fast-food joints and oil-smudged parking lots. Or, for that matter, blood.

Sitting here on the curb, gazing across the sweltering asphalt at a midtown Jack in the Box, I realize that this place now has a ghost. The stain of death is probably here, too, though I'm hard-pressed to find it. Most likely, it has been scrubbed away on the anxious orders of management.

That the murder occurred at this midtown eatery was pure coincidence. It could have happened anywhere. Especially in Arizona.

But it was right here, late on the afternoon of Aug. 1, that random fragments of frustration, resentment, indignation and impulse all collided into a white-hot moment. This constellation burst into reality, and then it was gone. And in that dissipation, Benny Alvarez Casarez Jr. lay dying, next to his black Ford Mustang. He had turned 50 the month before.

The authorities are talking road rage. It's thought that the killer squeezed off multiple shots from within his Toyota Tundra before careening away.

There was no shortage of witnesses to the murder of Benny Alvarez Casarez Jr. They included employees of a nearby Mexican restaurant. "I saw the police when they got here, and they tried to give him CPR to get him back," one told KOLD Channel 13. "He was face down, and they just put him face up. I don't think he was alive anymore."

Around midnight on Aug. 2, police captured 24-year-old Andres Fernando Buelna in a motel off Grant Road and Interstate 10. He was booked on suspicion of first-degree murder. My cursory search through a Superior Court database turned up little on Buelna, except for a civil medical case.

A TPD spokeswoman declined to discuss any prior criminal record, nor would she offer specifics about the weapon, except to describe it as a handgun.

It is often said, with passion, that guns don't kill people; people kill people. True enough. But it is not often said that knives don't kill people. Or, for that matter, that tire irons brandished in rage don't kill people. Of course they do, when taken in hand. Yet there is something in their lack of immediacy—the absence of sudden and shocking animation—that always removes them from this argument.

With good reason. It's hard to imagine Andres Fernando Buelna allegedly killing Benny Alvarez Casarez Jr. with a knife or a tire iron from within the cab of his truck. No, that would have required brutality at close quarters—a fierce gallop across the asphalt, and a hard look in the eye.

Perhaps time enough to change the collision of possibilities. Perhaps not.

Ask the multitudinous, often prickly fans of the Second Amendment, and they will offer another possibility: That a well-armed, well-trained passer-by might have gauged the situation in seconds, and taken Buelna out. That, they will say, is why we need more guns rather than less.

It could be truth. Or, in this universe of possibilities, it could be just another random notion, based on the mythos that nourishes gun worship. But in Arizona, that mythos has long been a matter of pure faith.

In recent legislative seasons, state lawmakers have found reasons to override local ordinances forbidding guns in city parks. They've voted to let the adult citizenry carry concealed weapons sans permits or training, and to allow citizens to take guns in bars.

In a case of déjà vu all over again, our state is increasingly being compared to the Wild West. But that's an intriguing misnomer; many frontier Arizona towns boasted stricter gun laws than we have today. Consider that Tombstone's infamous shootout erupted because the local marshal—Virgil Earp—attempted to enforce a prohibition on guns in public.

That's not to suggest that laissez-faire gun policy doesn't also enjoy deep roots here. Indeed, the Arizona Constitution harbors a gun-rights provision rendering its federal counterpart wimpishly vague by comparison. "The right of the individual citizen to bear arms in defense of himself or the state shall not be impaired," reads the Arizona document, "but nothing in this section shall be construed as authorizing individuals or corporations to organize, maintain, or employ an armed body of men."

The state Constitution was drafted in 1910, and we've been on 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.

Arizona 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 Criminal Background Check System, which is supposed to contain the names of people who are not eligible to purchase firearms.

Support of the contentious measure nearly cost then-Arizona Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini his job, after a recall was begun against him.

While Arizona may not be the only state to harbor a vibrant—and sometime truculent—gun culture, it's certainly at the forefront of a national movement dating from the 1970s, arising in response to that era's flood of restrictive gun legislation. The lawmaking flurry followed the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

Before that time, gun culture, as exemplified by the National Rifle Association, "was a hobby culture, a sportsman's culture," says Brian Anse Patrick, a communication professor at the University of Toledo, and author of Rise of the Anti-Media: In-forming America's Concealed Weapon Carry Movement.

"But since about 1970, it has turned into an identity movement," he says. "Gun owners suddenly perceived that they were under some form of attack by the gun-control agenda."

Nowhere were the results more raucous than in the NRA, "where the members took over the leadership, threw out the old guard, and they became a political organization. Since then, things have never been the same."

The NRA and similar groups have subsequently enjoyed great sway in Arizona, influencing everything from firearms regulation to wildlife policy. "They act in concert, and they're well-informed," he says. "That's why they win."

Ironically, they may even see long-term gains from tragedies such as the January mass shooting in Tucson that wounded 13—including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—and left six people dead, among them U.S. District Judge John Roll, and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green.

The reason is simple: Such events typically spark new proposals to restrict firearms, which in turn revitalize gun-rights groups. "Those things remind gun people why they organized in the first place," says Patrick.

Still, re-energized gun-rights advocates don't always prevail—even in Arizona. For instance, when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a pair of bills last session that would have allowed guns on college campuses and into public buildings, some firearms advocates viewed her move as a sop to the anti-gun crowd.

We're the Tombstone of the United States of America. ... I have never been a proponent of letting everybody in this state ... carry weapons whenever they want, and that's almost where we are. ... The Legislature is proposing students and teachers be able to carry weapons. ... Colleges should be run by college presidents, not the Arizona Legislature.

—Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik

Soon after Jared Loughner's shooting spree, there were charges and counter-charges about what had allegedly inspired the 22-year-old schizophrenic.

Gun-rights folks noted that Giffords herself has been a Glock-owning supporter of the Second Amendment. Gun-control advocates pointed out that conservative political gadfly and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had posted crosshairs on her website, targeting Democrats who supported President Obama's health-care bill. Among those targets was Gabrielle Giffords.

There's also a contingent steadily arguing that a single armed citizen, arising amidst the chaos of that January day, could have crisply put an end to Jared Loughner. There are others who call that ludicrously wishful thinking.

Charles Heller puts himself firmly in the first camp. He's a spokesman for the Arizona Citizens Defense League, a Tucson-based gun-rights group. And he says that one citizen, so armed, actually did happen upon the scene. This gentleman was preparing to draw down on someone with his 9-millimeter Ruger, before realizing that Loughner's gun had already been seized and emptied of bullets.

According to Heller, a "target" can be "neutralized" in 1.9 seconds from seven yards away. Loughner kept shooting for 31 seconds. "That would have been 29 seconds of shooting that he did not do," Heller says.

Richard Mack agrees. He's the former Graham County sheriff who has since fashioned a career as a gun-rights advocate. He's the author of the book From My Cold Dead Fingers: Why America Needs Guns. In 1994, Graham went to court, questioning the constitutionality of the Brady Bill's mandate that local law-enforcement officials run criminal background checks on gun-buyers. His case began in the courtroom of Judge John Roll, who ruled in his favor. Mack later took his successful fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

For Mack, the Loughner shootings were personal. "Judge Roll was killed, and he was my judge," Mack says. "I guarantee you that if I had been there, Judge Roll would be alive today, and so would that precious little girl."

The former sheriff now lives in Fredericksburg, Texas, where he works for a tea party-affiliated group. And his opinions about guns remain black and white. "They symbolize something very near and dear to my heart," he says, "and that's freedom."

He's writing a new tome called The Magic of Gun Control. "And what I'm expressing in the book is, plain and simply, that there is no magic," he says. "Why do we look at history and think that now, gun control will work in America, when it's never worked anyplace else to provide peace, safety, security, freedom—or to make sure that the individual is protected?

"There is not a chief of police or a sheriff in Arizona or anywhere else in this country," says Mack, "that can guarantee you that they can be there in time to save you from an armed assault. The only other option is that you defend yourself.

"When criminals get caught in the commission of a crime, it does a lot more than anything these vapid politicians can dream up."

Indeed, those "vapid" politicians thought up the NICS background check. And despite his history of mental problems, that system did not raise red flags over Jared Loughner. He strolled out of the Tucson Sportsman's Warehouse on Nov. 30, 2010, clutching a new Glock 19 semiautomatic handgun.

If we are a nation of guns, then Arizona is the flagship. 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-NRA president Charlton Heston was invited to give the legislative session's opening invocation.

More-recent sessions saw the passage of bills allowing the possession of concealed weapons without permits or training, the designation of a state handgun—the Colt Single Action Army revolver—and the 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 local jurisdictions from enacting gun ordinances more restrictive than state law, and ensure the right of citizens to carry guns in parks and preserves.

Many city and county leaders consider the new laws a state power-grab.

"I think local control is an important tenet that we try to defend," says Tucson Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich. "It seems to me that the scales are absolutely tipped toward the unrestricted use and carrying of weapons" regardless of the city's wishes.

As an example, Uhlich points to a solar-power array planned for Tucson Water property in Avra Valley. "There is a question about whether the new state statute will compel us to allow hunting on that property," she says. "Our responsibility to the local residents—and to the broader public—is to make sure we're using the assets to the best interests of the public. And allowing hunting around a large solar array is in direct conflict with that."

Over at the Tucson Police Department, worries about a more profusely armed populace are downplayed by Sgt. Matt Ronstadt.

"We haven't changed in the way our folks approach people in the street," says Ronstadt, a department spokesman. "It has always been with a primary focus on making a safe approach—and with the assumption is that everybody is armed until you've determined otherwise.

"That said," Ronstadt continues, "I think there was some concern when the conceal-carry permitting process was changed. In doing that, I think it eliminated one of the more-valuable parts of the law, which was the mandated training. Although that training was minimal, it was some training that people were required to go through prior to obtaining that carry permit."

In the meantime, there's hardly a shortage of hardware out there: Between August 2010 and August 2011, the Tucson Police Department took in 1,425 firearms. The number included guns that had been stolen, and guns used to commit crimes.

It's a mistake to assume that Arizona's new gun laws occurred in a vacuum. For better or worse, behind every measure was a lobbyist carefully shepherding his legislative flock. Among them was Todd Rathner, who has long handled the NRA's issues in Arizona. There was also Heller's Arizona Citizens Defense League, which is now considered the state's ascendant gun-rights group.

The Defense League's success is due to "hard work by five dedicated board members and a whole bunch of volunteers," says Heller. "It's just plain shoe leather and sweat."

It's also about a lot of face-time at the state Capitol. "We have two full-time lobbyists," he says. "That's why we've eclipsed the NRA—we're there every day the Legislature is open, and several days when it's not. We're the local boots on the ground."

That dedication has earned some obvious victories. But there have been defeats as well, such as when Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed the measures that would have allowed guns on college campuses and in public buildings.

The governor called the bills "poorly written." But Heller saw something else behind the governor's move.

"It was a reaction to the January shooting," he says, "the pressure she was getting from it. She had tremendous pushback. When you throw that big of a rock in the water, you're going to make a lot of waves."

Regardless, he says the measures were already sandbagged by the time they reached Brewer's desk. For instance, the law allowing guns throughout campus had been winnowed down to just permitting guns in common areas.

"We would have preferred clean bills," Heller says.

Which raises this question: What prompted such compromise among legislative leaders proudly steeped in gun-adoration? "Many Republicans lost their spine," Heller says. "'Republican' does not necessarily mean 'gun-friendly.'"

Nor, as it turns out, are all Democrats gun-hostile—particularly not those in rural, largely conservative districts where guns for hunting and self-protection are common.

"There's a lot of agreement in supporting Second Amendment rights," says Jennifer Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Democratic Party. "Where you see light between Democrats and Republicans is in some of these extreme measures, like guns in bars or guns on campuses, or removing training" for concealed-weapons permits.

"But Arizona Democrats are going to run the gamut," Johnson says, "from the Navajo Nation all the way down to the border. And they represent a lot of viewpoints. We are a big tent."

Big enough to contain the ambitions of state Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat representing a largely poor district with more than its share of gun violence. To help keep firearms off the street, Gallardo introduced a measure last session that would have required vendors and private sellers at gun shows to conduct the same background checks that are now demanded of gun shops. That would include screening buyers who are younger than 18, mentally ill or have criminal records. Currently, gun-show sellers only need to ask for ID when selling weapons.

Gallardo's measure followed an investigation by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which undercover agents easily bought guns at shows—even after mentioning that they'd be unable to pass background checks.

The loophole bill was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it was stalled by chairman Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican. "Ron Gould just sat on it," says Gallardo. "He refused to let it out."

Sen. Gould didn't return a phone call seeking comment.

Gallardo says he wasn't surprised. "The current makeup of the Legislature has no intentions of regulating any type of firearm, including the gun-show loophole. They're just not going to deal with it."

He blames a lack of education among the public. "I think people need to understand what goes on at these gun shows," he says. "It's not only what's being sold in the gun shows; it's what's being sold in the parking lots of these gun shows. They have these gun shows every month.

"Unfortunately, the Legislature refused to actually hear the bill, but we're going to continue to raise the level of debate on this issue."

Among Gallardo's staunchest backers was Hildy Saizow, president of Arizonans for Gun Safety. Among other things, her decade-old grassroots group does crime-prevention work in high-risk neighborhoods. In the last legislative session, it also worked the state Capitol.

"We don't have a lot of resources for lobbying, but we feel very strongly that we need to have smart policies that really address gun violence," Saizow says. "It's a particular problem in Arizona, because we have a very high rate of gun deaths compared to other states. And it's particularly problematic among youth. For the 15-to-17 age group, gun deaths are the No. 1 injury. It used to be traffic accidents, and now it's become gun deaths."

Actually, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, these two leading factors have traded places more than once in recent years.

Her group visits middle school classrooms in tough parts of Phoenix where gun violence is common. They ask how many students know someone who's been shot.

"You can't believe the number of hands that go up," Saizow says.

That effort is also being taken on by medical organizations such as St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix, which participates in Chicanos por la Causa's TRUCE Project. The program helps young people learn to resolve conflicts nonviolently.

For hospitals, such involvement is a no-brainer.

"Violence-caused injuries are the second-leading cause of injury to young adults that we see at the hospital," says Pam Goslar, St. Joseph's injury epidemiologist. "When you see that with teenagers and young adults over and over again, all of our trauma surgeons want to see something done to prevent that violence."

There is also a cost to the hospital and society, she says, since most victims of such violence don't have commercial insurance. "They're either not insured at all, or they're already on (Arizona's Medicare system)."

St. Joseph's is also planning to participate in a December gun-buyback day.

To Hildy Saizow, hitting those tough neighborhoods is the important work. But this year, the Legislature provided a distraction when it moved to allow guns on campus and in public buildings.

"We decided that we really had to focus on stopping these measures that are just really out of touch with what the public wants," she says, "out of touch with common-sense approaches to violence, and really against the social compact.

"For decades, we have all agreed that there are some places that guns don't belong. That's in schools and in public places. So when the gun lobby really made the push to put guns in those areas, we said, 'That's enough.'"

There has also been pushback on campus, by organizations such as Students Against Guns in Education. Jay Sanguinetti is the group's co-president, and a UA psychology grad student who also teaches classes. He traveled to Phoenix to lobby.

He says the proposal to allow guns at state universities was disturbing. "Our first sort of visceral, gut-level reaction was that we didn't want to teach classes in front of people where some might be armed, and some aren't. It started there, and the more we discussed (the law), the more objections it raised."

He says that SAGE has the support of most faculty members. But the concern doesn't end there.

"We began noticing that most of the students—undergrads and graduate students—we were talking to were also very uncomfortable with it. They had the reaction of, 'Why would anybody want to do this in the first place?'"

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arizona has topped national rates of gun-related deaths since 1981, when the stats were first recorded.

According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program, in 2009, guns accounted for 60.1 percent of all murders in Arizona. Statewide, there were 4,053 aggravated assaults involving firearms, and guns were used in 3,671 robberies.

A report by Mayors Against Illegal Guns details a strong correlation between weak gun laws and interstate gun-trafficking. The findings point out that states with the weakest gun laws are the top suppliers of trafficked guns and firearms found at crime scenes.

In 2009, Arizona experienced 3.04 gun murders per 100,000 people. While we can't complete with the District of Colombia—with its astounding 18.84-per-100,000 annual homicide rate—or Louisiana's average 10.46 per 100,000 gun murders, many question whether the tide of firearms flowing through Arizona is actually making us safer, as gun-advocates argue.

But numbers or not, those advocates cite their interpretation of the Second Amendment—and note that the courts have generally agreed with them.

"We're not in the business of telling people to buy guns," says Charles Heller of the Arizona Citizens Defense League. "We're in the business of making it easier for them to assert their rights."

But attitudes toward gun restrictions are changing: A poll by the conservative firm American Viewpoint found that nearly half of all Arizonans would support more-restrictive gun laws, while only 5 percent would oppose additional restrictions. That includes 35 percent of people who own guns.

Fifty-three percent support stricter gun laws as a means to prevent mass shootings. It also found that 69 percent of respondents opposed the idea to allow guns on college campuses.

Those numbers leave Heller unmoved. "I don't know if the majority of Arizona citizens are behind us, and I don't care," he says. "I care that the Constitution is behind us. We're not in a popularity contest; we're in a constitutional-rights contest."

I meet Danielle Duarte for the first time in a midtown park. It was just a few weeks after her father, Benny Alvarez Cazarez Jr., was gunned down in that Jack in the Box parking lot. She's friendly and upbeat, the way people can be when they're stubbornly treading water in a sea of unanswerable questions.

In an earlier phone conversation, she described her dad as a jack of all trades who worked on cars and did metal fabrication. He was very street-smart and always keyed in to his surroundings. She can't figure out why he would have pulled into that parking lot, and possibly confronted his killer.

"For him to get out of that car is mind-blowing to us," Duarte says. "He was always mellow and pretty easy-going. He was always in the moment."

Benny Alvarez Casarez Jr. had just celebrated his 50th birthday, on the Fourth of July.

To do something positive, Duarte has printed bumper stickers prodding drivers to pause and breathe deep before they, too, roar into the road-rage trap.

And she's still working through her feelings about guns. It's the national debate, writ small and quite personal. On the one hand, she says, people kill people. On the other hand, maybe there are too many guns, making that habit all too easy.

Her dad had his own opinion on the matter: "He would always say, 'All it takes is a split second. You can be at the wrong place at the wrong time.'"

Duarte falls silent for a minute. "There are two sides to this," she says. "There's gun control. Then there's also just that sense of being responsible and respectful. It's the Golden Rule—treat people the way you want to be treated. And I think we've lost a lot of that."

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