Interview with Mark Walsh from the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence
The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence is the oldest state organization working on gun violence prevention in the country. Currently in its 41st year, the organization was formed by four suburban women who thought the gun industry should be regulated like the automobile industry to help reduce the impact of gun violence on our communities. We sat down and spoke with Mark Walsh, ICHV’s campaign director on how that battle is proceeding. Walsh has been with ICHV for 6 years and working on the issue full-time for the past 8 years. He has long organized on political and social justice issues as well as working for various elected officials on the state and local level.
Kyle Gaffin: Tell me a little bit about your organization. How does it seek to accomplish its mission?
Mark Walsh: We have basically two approaches to addressing the issue of gun violence in Illinois. One is through public education and the other is through public policy advocacy. With education, we publish materials to inform the public about the problem, we speak at conferences and on panels to increase people’s awareness of the law and guns. We also team up with schools to get kids engaged with this issue at a young age. We do this through our Student Voices Program. We just had our twentieth annual Student Voices Contest, where we ask kids to submit essays, poetry and visual art all dealing with the issues of gun violence. Through our Activist Institute, we provide training in activism for students to get involved in the issue, educating them on the problem, and helping them to develop their own service projects and action campaigns to address this issue in their communities. We’ve also developed a curriculum for educators who want to help their students learn about gun violence and empower them to take action. We run anti-violence workshops as well.
KG: And on the public policy front?
MW: With public policy advocacy, we’re really pushing for common sense legislation. One thing we’ve been working on is the licensing and regulation of gun dealers, ‘cause they’re a huge source of illegally trafficked guns. Currently, the federal licensing system offers very little oversight. Here’s an interesting fact: there are 738 McDonald’s in the state of Illinois. You know how many gun dealers there are? Over 2,500. Now, the vast majority of these are responsible dealers, but there are a few that are really irresponsible. In fact, about 20% of crime guns in Chicago can be traced to just four local dealers [Chuck’s Gun Shop, Riverdale, IL; Midwest Sporting Goods, Lyons, IL; Shore Galleries, Lincolnwood, IL; Westforth Sports, Gary, IN]. So we need better legislation to address these offenders. This means background checks on all employees, a security plan to prevent theft, a ban on alcohol on premise, a recording inventory where all sales are on record, and placement restrictions, so that a dealer may not be located in residential areas or near schools, that sort of thing. If you think about it, gun violence is really a public health epidemic. Illinois requires licenses for all sorts of businesses in the interest of public health and safety – why not gun dealers?
We’re also pushing for the titling of guns, in the same way that cars are titled, and limits on the number of guns an individual can purchase. We’re also working to make sure that mental health records are part of the system. We’ve been working on what’s called a “Lethal Violence Order of Protection,” which is basically where a family member or law enforcement could go to the courts and say, “We think this person is a risk to himself and other people, here’s the proof we have.” If the judge rules that that’s the case, the guns can be temporarily removed. And that’s important because what we’ve seen here in Illinois and nationally is that when a gun is close at hand, there’s more of a tendency for it to be used in the heat of the moment. Suicides, for example – your success rate with a gun is very high, it’s in the seventieth percentile, whereas pills, everything else is under ten percent. Very few people who attempt suicide and fail attempt it again. So if you are able to get that gun out of the house, you increase the chance that if someone does attempt suicide, they’ll survive and be able to get treatment.
KG: I wonder if you could speak a little bit more about the issue of suicide and guns, because I think that’s an aspect of the gun violence problem that we don’t always consider.
MW: There are approximately 1,000 gun deaths in the state of Illinois each year, with about 450-500 on average being in Chicago. I would venture to say that the majority of those are suicides. In Illinois, and this is also true of other states with large population centers, over 60% of gun deaths are suicides. In fact, this was my first encounter with gun violence. When I was in junior high, a friend of mine killed himself with his Dad’s service revolver after a party… you know, that easy access to a gun when you’re in that situation… and a twelve year old kid kills himself. And the devastation, I’ve worked with his family even twenty years later, still completely devastated by it. And we don’t talk about that so much, mental health is still a taboo subject in a lot of communities. I don’t think we talk about that enough.
But the big problem here in Chicago is still homicides. The Superintendent may say, “Gun homicides are down,” but the number of shootings is up. Part of that is that we have better medical care than we had ten years ago. But the problem isn’t really getting better. They’re still killing people. And one of the real problems I see is that we have an attitude in Chicago that this is somehow normal. You know, the reaction when a nine-year old gets lured into an alley and executed should be just mass outrage! Instead it’s a temporary boil up, and then we’re on to the next one, ‘cause it happens so frequently. It’s a crazy thing where you look at a paper on a Monday morning, and you think, “Oh, there were only twenty shootings and only three people died, that wasn’t a bad weekend.” I did a presentation before a group of college students through the State Department and Miami of Ohio, and it was a few kids from Miami of Ohio, but the other kids were from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq, and they were like, “What are you people doing?”
KG: What are some other groups that you work with on this issue?
MW: There are a lot of great groups that we work with. We work with about 35 active groups across the state and hundreds of people who want to see lives saved. Every day it seems like as the violence continues, we get a call or email saying, “How can I help?” There are a couple that help people deal with loss due to gun violence. What happens when you’re thrown into this system and your life is in complete chaos? One is called Chicago’s Citizens for Change [see interview with Joy McCormack in this issue] and Purpose over Pain, and they are all survivors who have navigated the system and are trying to help those who are entering it. There’s a group that started in Englewood called MASK (Mothers Against Senseless Killings), and what they did was just stake out a corner and take it over. They were out there every night in the summer and will be back out there in the spring. They said, “Hey, this is a hot corner, we’re going to take it over and feed people.” “Free Hugs and Free Food,” that’s kind of their motto. I was recently with a similar group, Parents for Peace & Justice, in Humboldt Park at Division and Keeler, a dangerous intersection. And it’s a completely different vibe when we were out there – kids were having a dance contest. These kids don’t come out at all, but they did then because there was this safe zone that was created.
KG: Kind of a grassroots response, saying, “Hey, we’re just going to get together and do something about this.” Is that right?
MW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of that. You know, I’ve been known to say whenever there’s another shooting or something horrific happens, that the last thing we need is another group focused on this issue. I mean, it’s gotten a lot better over the years, but when I first started working on this, there was this attitude of, “You stay in your corner, I’ll stay in my corner, you do your thing, I’ll do my thing.” Now there’s a lot more collaboration. But there are a lot of people, and we need a lot of people, just saying, “We gotta do something.” Then there’s a group called Moms Demand Action, which was formed after the Sandy Hook shootings by mostly suburban moms who maybe aren’t directly impacted by gun violence, but who were able to see their own six- or seven-year olds as those victims. That’s a mantra of some people that I work with, that if you can picture someone you love as a victim of gun violence, you’re going to do something about it. And the fact is that it’s harder and harder to find a place that isn’t touched by gun violence.
KG: The President said something following the recent shootings in Oregon, asking people to consider whether the organization that they think represents them, truly does represent their interests? Clearly he was referring to the NRA. What do you think people should know about the NRA and the gun lobby that they may not know?
MW: I always tell this story from when I first started on this issue. I had this printer I had used for years, and one time when I’m picking up an order he says, “Mark, I don’t think I can do your printing anymore. I’m an NRA member.” I asked him, “Did you read what I printed?” So I went point-by-point with him through everything on the sheet, things like safe storage, universal background checks, an assault weapons ban, and he agreed with them all. I said, “Why don’t you send the $35 you give to the NRA to me, because I better represent you.” And you see that a lot. One thing I think we can be better about on the gun violence prevention side is not identifying everything as the NRA this, the NRA that, because it’s really the highest levels of the NRA that are the problem, those funded by the gun industry. The fact is that gun sales are shrinking, so the gun industry is trying to create and sustain a market, and they do that by claiming that everything we do is the first step to taking everybody’s guns away. But when you talk to most people one-on-one about this stuff, things like safe storage, for example, it’s what they are already doing. They just get so jacked up thinking their rights are being taken away that it’s hard to have a conversation. The organization uses scare tactics to keep people from thinking carefully about this. What we really want is for people to see that, with things like licensing gun dealers, we really aren’t trying to take away anyone’s guns. We just want those dealers who are just bad community business partners to have to reform their practices.
KG: You described this legislation earlier as “common sense gun legislation.” And that’s really what it is, right? It’s not about infringing on anyone’s Constitutional rights, it’s about finding basic, effective solutions to a massively destructive problem in this country.
MW: Right. Now, there are many Constitutional scholars on both sides that constantly debate what the founders intended, but what’s important is that in the majority opinion for the Supreme Court’s decision in DC v. Heller, which overturned the DC handgun ban, Justice Scalia wrote that there is a fundamental right to keep and bear arms, but that does not mean that that right cannot be restricted. He goes on to say that he’s not sure what those restrictions are, but they probably include prohibited purchasers, for example. So it’s working out those restrictions while respecting some right to arms. And what we’ve seen in most circuit courts is that these common sense laws are routinely upheld. California has some of the best gun laws, has had the majority of them tested in court, and they’ve passed Constitutional muster. So if we can stop the thinking that we’re taking away a right, I would like to think that the debate could find some common ground and we could actually do something. But I’ve also sat in debates with the head of the State Rifle Association and lobbyists for the NRA who say they will never agree with us. Is that bluster? I don’t know, ‘cause I’ve had conversations with legislators who are decidedly not with us, yet who get that we need common ground but are so worried about the political ramifications that they don’t want to be the first one in. But hopefully we can find some middle ground to move forward.