Local Mom Takes Aim at “Gun Show Loophole”

Local Mom Takes Aim at “Gun Show Loophole”

Like many other Alexandria moms, Abby Spanglers day begins by getting her family out the door amid all the craziness entailing every morning. But then her day promptly takes a radical turn from most of the rest of us as she juggles running her recently-formed organization Protest Easy Guns with practicing her cello concertos.

From the time she arrives at the small office of Protest Easy Guns, she turns her attention to planning the official launch of a national campaign to close the gun show loophole, which includes a lie-in protest scheduled for January 13 on the grounds of the Virginia State Capitol just after the 10 a.m. vote by the Virginia State Crime Commission on whether or not they recommend to the General Assembly that the gun show loophole be closed in the Commonwealth.

Since founding the organization less than two years ago, there have been 110 lie-ins in 31 states and Washington, D.C. Additionally, Protest Easy Guns already has a number of senators and members of congress on both sides of the aisle supporting their efforts to close the gun show loophole.

There are approximately 5,000 gun shows in the United States each year, and in 35 states anyone even a felon can buy a gun without a background check from private, unlicensed sellers. Unlike licensed gun sellers, who are required by law to perform background checks, private sellers, who comprise 25 to 50 percent of the sellers at gun shows, are allowed to sell rifles, hand guns and semi-automatic weapons without performing a background check on the purchasers. This is called the gun show loophole, which Spangler and the Protest Easy Guns movement is working to close so that sellers will be required to conduct the instant background check, which on average takes just a few minutes. Given that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms says that gun shows are the second leading source of guns used in crimes in America, if the campaign to close the gun show loophole can achieve its goal in federal legislation, American lives will ultimately be saved.

This bright, well-spoken, attractive, athletic, cello-playing mom with a bachelors degree from Wellesley and a doctorate in political science from Columbia University did not need a cause du jour. Nor is Spangler an egocentric limelight seeker. Her primary focus was on her family, volunteering and playing the cello. Then came the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

That one news story haunted her and has changed her life forever. On a personal level, championing this cause has meant that Spangler gets threatening emails. However, she refuses to back down or let anyone say derogatory things about her opponents.

From the time she first heard the stories of the 32 Virginia Tech victims and the bravery of people like 76-year old Holocaust survivor and engineering professor Liviu Librescu, who used his body to barricade the door of his classroom and shield his students from the gun-toting Seung-Hui Cho, Spangler was galvanized to act. The Columbine shootings, the Washington D.C.-area sniper attacks and the Amish girls gunned down in a Pennsylvania schoolhouse were upsetting to Spangler, but when the shootings occurred in Blacksburg, she felt compelled to act. I kept imagining what it would feel like to be one of the parents who lost their children. Lily Habtus family moved here to the United States from Eritrea because they thought that America would be much safer than their war-torn homeland. Then, Lily was shot in the face and wrist in the massacre at Virginia Tech.

Despite all the press about how easy it is to buy guns of all types from private sellers at gun shows, Spangler is frustrated that 35 states still have no legal requirements for private sellers anyone without a commercial gun selling license to perform a criminal background check on buyers at gun shows and states continue to be slack in their laws on the selling of guns, including assault weapons, to keep them out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

One of the Virginia Tech victims who died has a brother who recently went to a gun show and was able to buy several semi-automatic weapons from private sellers there. No one asked him for any identification. He turned the guns he purchased from private sellers over to the police, exclaims Spangler.

The goals of Protest Easy Guns are simple, deliberately apolitical, and attainable: To get all 50 states to close their gun show loophole so that all sellers at gun shows will have to conduct background checks on gun purchasers; to reinstate the ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines (larger than 10 rounds), which were banned for 10 years by Congress but allowed to lapse in 2004. (The Virginia Tech gunman easily bought a high-capacity ammunition magazine which had previously been covered by the federal ban, in his deadly shooting spree); and to overturn the federal legislation called the Tiahrt Amendment. This amendment bans the sharing of crime gun trace data between police departments and law enforcement.

Every police station in the nation wants this law overturned so that they can more effectively prevent and solve gun crime and gun trafficking cases in their communities. We must help our police be able to have the information they need to do their jobs tracking down murderers and preventing future gun crime against the rest of us. The Tiahrt Amendment is a disgrace, which the new Congress needs to overturn, says Spangler.

Spangler does not do any fundraising and operates Protest Easy Guns on a shoestring. She is quick to point out that she is not anti-guns, and she even learned to shoot rifles at camp as a young girl in North Carolina. I am not against hunters, recreational shooters, guns for private protection or gun collectors. We are against people hunters. Protest Easy Guns has a narrowly focused mission: to close the gun show loophole, limit the sale of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and overturn the Tiahrt Amendment which prevents police from having the crime gun trace data they need to effectively do their jobs.

She never forgets who she is striving to remember in the first place: the 32 victims who died at Virginia Tech and their families. As Spangler talks, she occasionally touches the simple, silver disk on a chain with a 32 engraved on it, perhaps as a reminder of what inspired her to try to make a difference on the national level.

Her friends admire her tenacity and drive to make a difference by doing something that is simple, common sense and helps keeps guns out of the hands of people who cannot pass the typically required background check. Spanglers neighbor and good friend Helen Epley says, This isnt about limiting weapons or hunting. It is about helping make sure that felons do not easily obtain guns and also that background and ID checks are done on gun purchasers at gun shows when weapons are bought from unlicensed private dealers. She goes on to explain that, Whenever there is something I can do to help Spangler with Protest Easy Guns, I am glad to pitch in. After all, shes doing this for my kids too. I think what she is doing is fantastic; she is highly focused and capable.

Similarly, fellow Old Town resident and supporter of Spanglers endeavor, Ann Horowitz says, I certainly feel very strongly that people should not be able to stroll around gun shows and buy as many weapons as they wish from unlicensed dealers. Who knows what sort of person wants to buy a gun without a background check and from an unlicensed dealer? Spangler is wise to keep the attention on closing this huge loophole in so many states gun show laws.

After almost two years of championing this cause, Spangler speaks with ease about guns, state gun laws and firearms statistics, sometimes quoting statistics that surprise her listeners. For example, both Senator John McCain and President-elect Barack Obama support closing the gun show loophole. McCain even recorded two television advertisements, which ran in Oregon and Color
ado, prior to those two states holding public referendums urging citizens to vote to close the gun show loophole in 2000. In both states, the citizens voted overwhelmingly to close the loophole. Another statistic surprising to many is that 87 percent of Americans support closing the gun show loophole and 83 percent of gun owners are in favor of closing the loophole on background checks.

Like many folks, prior to founding Protest Easy Guns, Spangler had never set foot on the grounds of a gun show.

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that private sellers are wandering around gun shows holding hand-written signs reading For Sale: $100 and rifles, shotguns, and assault weapons sticking out of their backpacks. Cash and carry no questions asked. They could be selling the gun to a felon or terrorist who will use the gun to kill Americans. Its an outrage, explains Spangler.

When Spangler is not running Protest Easy Guns, ferrying her children to school or performing a variety of child-related activities, one might find her practicing her cello for her role as a cellist in the Washington Philharmonic Orchestra. Before Spangler launched Protest Easy Guns with its nationwide lie-ins, she spent a great deal of time volunteering for a number of causes. She also created a more modest charitable venture for her kids and their friends to benefit T.A.P.S. (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.) It was essentially a child-run hot chocolate and bake sale at the Scottish Walk, which raised over $2000 for military families who have lost their loved ones while in the U.S. armed forces.

You never know what is coming next in life. I spent years researching for my PhD the power of citizens to change public policy through mobilizing the will of the people. In my dissertation, I focused on breast cancer, AIDS and prostate cancer, and how these three groups of people with the desire to raise awareness of their cause got the attention and eventually the research allocations they needed to save people dying from these diseases. It took repeatedly going after what they wanted to help increase medical research funding, which helped increase survival rates and decrease incidence rates of these diseases causing the deaths of so many, says Spangler. It is similar to what we are doing with Protest Easy Guns. By continually beating the drum in the same manner we hope to have our collective voice heard. The lie-ins repeat the message everywhere one is staged. Spangler closed by saying that, We just want to save American lives by securing a safer future for our children, police and all Americans.

As we go to press, 15 states have stepped up and partly or entirely closed the gun show loophole on background checks. With Spanglers infectious enthusiasm and drive behind Protest Easy Guns, odds are that the 35 states with the gun show loophole will succumb to this cello playing moms relentless desire to make America safer.