The murder of Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski in Philadelphia on May 3 demonstrates how weak laws and unfettered access to firearms in America leads to tragic consequences.
Responding to a bank robbery call, Sgt. Liczbinski was shot five times by an assailant who used a Chinese-made SKS assault rifle. Assault weapons are semiautomatic versions of fully automatic military rifles, and are disproportionably used by criminals to kill cops (the Violence Policy Center has released a report that shows that one out of every five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty is killed with an assault weapon). These types of weapons are not ideal for either hunting or for self-defense—they were designed to rapidly fire high-velocity rounds at human targets in combat situations.
Officer Thomas Krajewski Sr., who held Sgt. Liczbinski in his arms as he died, commented: “There is absolutely no reason that anyone should be carrying around military-style assault weapons. I mean, we saw what a weapon like that did to a human body. I mean, I own guns and my sons and I hunt as well, but I don’t have assault rifles or anything. There’s no need for it.”
Unfortunately, the federal ban on assault weapons expired in September 2004. It was not the only gun law implicated in Sgt. Liczbinski’s murder. The shooter, Howard Cain, was a convicted felon, and therefore prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“[Tony Robbins, ATF assistant special agent] noted that the ATF was able to trace the SKS rifle used to gun down Liczbinski to a gun show in Fayetteville, NC. He said that because it had been bought at a gun show, the owner did not have to undergo a background check—another proposal that’s been blocked by the gun lobby.” The rifle was trafficked illegally and passed through the hands of at least three other convicted felons.
North Carolina is one of many states that allow individuals to sell rifles and shotguns at gun shows without conducting background checks on purchasers. Commonly referred to as the “Gun Show Loophole,” this loophole actually allows individuals to sell guns in this manner not just at gun shows, but also via the Internet, through classified ads in newspapers, across their kitchen tables, etc., etc. The ATF has found that: “Prohibited persons, such as convicted felons and juveniles, do personally buy firearms at gun shows and gun shows are sources of firearms that are trafficked to such prohibited persons.”
The National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully thwarted all efforts to close the Gun Show Loophole at the national level since the time of the Columbine tragedy (where gun shows were implicated). Undaunted, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Jack Reed have introduced a bill to close the loophole during the current session of Congress.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has also taken action, signing five gun control bills into law, including one that bans the sale and possession of assault weapons. Unfortunately, a 1994 law enacted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly at the behest of the NRA blocks municipalities in the state from enacting their own gun control laws. The NRA has also sued Philadelphia over the signing of the five new bills, and pending the outcome of that lawsuit, the assault weapons ban and other measures will go unenforced.
The result is that loose gun laws will continue to provide outlets for criminals and other prohibited purchasers to acquire firearms, and America’s law enforcement officers and citizens will continue to be caught in their crosshairs.