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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We had expected to feature our interview with Mira Bartok today, about having a mother who was paranoid, schizophrenic, violent and for many years homeless. We're going to postpone that interview until tomorrow because we want to talk about Saturday's horrifying shootings in Tucson.

Jared Loughner, the man charged with the shooting, appears to be mentally ill. His bizarre and disruptive behavior got him suspended from community college. When he tried to enlist in the Army, he was rejected after failing a drug test.

Yet, in Tucson, he was able to legally buy a semi-automatic weapon and carry it without a permit. That made it possible for him to shoot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in the head, kill six people, including federal Judge John Roll and a nine-year-old student council president, and wound 19 others.

My guest, James Grimaldi, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter with the Washington Post. He's contributed to their series "The Hidden Life of Guns." We talked with him about that series last week. We invited him back today to talk about Arizona's lenient gun laws, which he reported on yesterday in the Post.

James Grimaldi, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm sorry I have to talk to you again under these circumstances.

Mr. JAMES GRIMALDI: (Journalist, Washington Post): Thanks for inviting me.

GROSS: So, Arizona is one of the states with the most lenient gun laws. Would you describe those laws?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, essentially, there is very little obstacle to purchasing a weapon in the state of Arizona. There are laws that require you federally to be at least 21 years old to purchase a handgun. But basically, state law permits anyone 21 or older to own a firearm and also carry it concealed in the state.

And that's different than other states, many of which have more strict gun laws.

GROSS: In 2010, Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill that repealed a state law that required gun owners to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon. So now to carry a concealed weapon, you no longer need a permit in the state of Arizona.

Mr. GRIMALDI: Right, and in fact, that's a law in various forms the previous governor, Janet Napolitano, had vetoed. It was obviously somewhat contentious. But when Brewer came in, being a Republican and being a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, she repealed that law.

GROSS: Do you know if Loughner's weapon is considered to have been a concealed weapon?

Mr. GRIMALDI: No, I'm unaware of the exact location of the weapon. I think most of the eyewitnesses didn't notice the weapon until he was firing it.

GROSS: If Loughner was carrying his weapon as a concealed weapon, what does that mean in terms of if he could have been, you know, frisked by a cop? Now, there weren't cops on the scene. There wasn't security on the scene. But say there was, with the law being as it is now in Arizona, would that have made him suspicious and given a policeman grounds to frisk him or question him?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Right, well, the current law says you're permitted to carry a weapon concealed in the state of Arizona. So a law enforcement officer would probably have to find some other reason to stop him and search him.

So because of that change in the law, he's unlikely to have been stopped for having a concealed weapon.

GROSS: So now in Arizona, you can carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Say it was 2009 in Arizona, and you needed a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Would that have made a difference, possibly, in Loughner's ability to be at that event with a concealed weapon?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, prior to the passage of the law, if a law enforcement officer saw someone carrying a concealed weapon or, say, saw a bulge under a jacket, that law enforcement officer could stop the person, ask for a permit, ask if they were carrying a concealed weapon and then, if they didn't have a permit for a concealed weapon, they could search them.

Perhaps something might have stopped Loughner before getting there if there had been some circumstance like that prior to the shooting.

GROSS: Now, you report that Loughner passed an instant background check at Sportsman's Warehouse in Arizona, where he purchased his Glock. This was on November 30th. What is an instant background check in the state of Arizona?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, under the Brady Law, which was passed in 1994 and named for Jim Brady, the press secretary for Ronald Reagan who was injured in that assassination attempt, the Brady Law requires a national instant check system.

Back in the '90s, that took several days, but over the years, they've made it essentially a check that, depending on state to state, they make a phone call to see if the person ends up being a prohibited buyer in the system.

The main thing they look for are felony convictions because you can't be a felon and purchase a firearm. Certainly, you can't purchase a handgun under the federal law. You need to be also, for a handgun, 21 years old.

They also look for mental health records, and there's been some attempts by many states to improve the reporting of those mental health records, particularly in Virginia, for example, after the Virginia Tech shooting.

GROSS: So it seems pretty clear that Loughner is mentally ill. But he passed the instant background check. Do you know what it takes to have mental illness come up in a background check?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, I think it would certainly require, at the very least, some sort of diagnosis of Mr. Loughner. I dont know that there's an indication that he'd actually seen mental health professional who would be able to report such information to the authorities.

And as it is now, many prohibited persons are not blocked from buying guns because the records aren't in NICS, including about 80 to 90 percent of disqualifying mental health records, according to the Brady Campaign, which is a gun control organization.

GROSS: In other words, you might have a mental health record, but if it isn't in the instant background check database, it wont come up, so you'd still be able to buy the weapon.

Mr. GRIMALDI: That's correct.

GROSS: Now, it's been reported that Loughner tried to buy ammunition at a Wal-Mart in Arizona, and because of his behavior, he was turned down. But he went to another Wal-Mart, where he successful made the ammunition purchase. Is there any discretion required of gun or ammo sellers?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, yes. There's - essentially, there's very little limitations on ammunition and purchasing ammunition. But gun stores exercise a lot of discretion. And as we talked about last week, they often consider themselves the first line of defense in trying to prevent what would be seen as an illegal purchase.

When you buy a weapon, for example, you have to fill out a Form 4473, and on there, you have to say that you haven't been convicted or are not an abuser of drugs or alcohol.

We know that Mr. Loughner had had apparently an arrest that was dismissed regarding drug paraphernalia. There are some people who believe that perhaps there should have been some reporting to the NICS system about that kind of arrest.

But I know of gun dealers, and we've interviewed some gun dealers, who say that they simply will refuse a sale if they believe the person is lying on that form.

GROSS: Now, the Glock firearm that he did purchase, it's considered a semiautomatic pistol.

Mr. GRIMALDI: That's right.

GROSS: And my understanding is that gun would have been outlawed, you wouldn't have been able to manufacture it or sell it if the automatic weapon bill that was - that expired in 2004 was still in effect. This was a bill that was passed during the Clinton administration.

Mr. GRIMALDI: I'm not an expert about what would fall into or not fall into the assault weapons ban. I do know that many organizations, especially pro-gun groups, say part of the problem with that law is, how do you define an assault weapon? How do you define what falls into that category?

We talked last week about this bill that would prohibit multiple purchases of assault weapons along the border in relation to the Mexico gun trade. And they've come up with a definition for that that seems rather narrow.

But I can tell you, definitions of what does and does not fall under the assault weapon ban is highly controversial. And many gun advocates essentially mocked that law from the '90s, saying that it was easily circumvented.

GROSS: One of the things that makes Arizona gun laws so relatively lenient is that Arizona allows guns in places that many states do not. What are some examples?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, guns are permitted almost everywhere in the state except a business or doctor's office. The state rifle association even lists on its website restaurants that permit concealed weapons. Guns are permissible inside the state capitol and many other public buildings.

We know, under the Supreme Court's recent rulings that states are permitted to ban weapons in schools, churches, public buildings, but Arizona, and it's my understanding Texas, as well, allows them on the capitol grounds.

And I think a lot of this has to do with Arizona's stand on gun ownership, which is rooted in the constitution of the state.

GROSS: So in Arizona, it's legal to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. What about a non-concealed weapon?

Mr. GRIMALDI: That's fine. In fact, you probably could see people with holsters. I think if it's out in the open, it's not considered concealed and they could carry it. But that also might prompt a law enforcement officer to ask about it. Regardless, it's legal.

GROSS: What would they have the right to ask?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, maybe they wouldn't have a right to stop them. That's a good question. I mean, I don't think it's uncommon to find people carrying weapons unconcealed in the state of Arizona. It's not like every restaurant that you go to, but there certainly are groups who like to - who like to promote this. They think it's a good thing.

GROSS: After the Virginia Tech shootings, there was a bill that was introduced to allow students and teachers to carry guns into the school. I assume that means college because you have to be 18 to own a gun. So am I right in saying that would be college as opposed to high school?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Right, or junior college, I suppose.

GROSS: So what's the status on that proposal?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, I think it's still pending. A former state senator, Pamela Goreman(ph) told us, she was a sponsor of the bill, that the people who would - you would be trying to control from bringing in those guns would probably not pay attention to the law. And if they're thinking about killing someone, the fact that the gun isn't registered or is not permitted on those grounds wouldn't stop them.

So the feeling is, why shouldn't law-abiding citizens have them to defend themselves against people like that?

GROSS: My guest is Washington Post investigative reporter James Grimaldi. He contributed to the Post series "The Hidden Life of Guns." Yesterday, he reported on Arizona's lenient gun laws. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Washington Post reporter James Grimaldi. Yesterday, he reported on Arizona's lenient gun laws that made it possible for Jared Loughner to legally buy a semi-automatic pistol with just an instant background check and carry it without a permit. Grimaldi contributed to the Post series "The Hidden Life of Guns."

Now, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, she owned a gun. She was a supporter of Second Amendment rights. When the Supreme Court struck down Washington, D.C.'s ban on handgun ownership as unconstitutional, she released a statement saying: As a gun owner, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment.

Yet at the same time, the NRA spent money trying to defeat her and gave her a D rating. So what was that based on? I mean, she supported the rights of gun owners.

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, I spent a lot of time looking at the NRA ratings, and unfortunately, they're not as transparent as I would like them to be. There are probably a couple of reasons.

One, if she supported any limitation on guns whatsoever, that's likely to bump her down at least a grade, and after at least a couple of those, they could be bumping her down precipitously.

Also, last year, you'll recall, in the last Congress, there was a campaign finance bill that the National Rifle Association opposed, and there were some votes to exempt them from being covered by the new campaign finance law. And I don't know that that bill was rated, but I have a hunch that maybe that's one of the reasons she got knocked down to a D.

Plus, the NRA thought they had found a, I guess, a stronger candidate and a stronger supporter of gun rights in Marine Sergeant Jesse Kelly, age 29, so much so that they spent about $40,000 in the race to defeat Giffords and to support Kelly.

GROSS: It's interesting that I think both sides of the gun control issue are using Saturday's shootings to justify the positions. Gun control advocates are saying we need stricter laws, but on the other hand, for instance, Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, he's a Republican, and Heath Shuler of North Carolina, who's a Democrat, told Politico that they'll be carrying their guns in their home districts for protection, and they have conceal-and-carry permits.

Mr. GRIMALDI: It doesn't surprise me, actually, because the gun issue is so, so divisive in this country. And we've talked to both sides of the issue and both sides are going to see this incident from their own point of view.

Gun owners and supporters of the Second Amendment and supporters of, you know, everyone having guns or at least legal people having guns, feel like, well, maybe if they had - they might have been able to stop it sooner than they had.

And then supporters of reasonable limits on gun ownership and limits on the use of guns feel like some of those laws might have prevented him from either buying or carrying the weapon to that scene.

And I don't think even a show like this could ever resolve that difference.

GROSS: Is there any gun legislation before Congress now?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, the Congress is so new, I dont know if any bills have been introduced. But I do know we're expected to see the re-introduction of the ATF Modernization Act, and that's regarding the federal agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and there's an attempt by supporters of the NRA, and it's an NRA-backed bill, that would make it harder to close a gun store.

The NRA and the gun store owners believe they often get shut down for paperwork violations. Many in the ATF, and I think the ATF formally opposes parts of this rule because it would make it so much more difficult for the ATF to close down a store that might be a bad actor or a rogue dealer.

GROSS: I know the story that you're researching now for publication tomorrow in the Washington Post has to do with how restrictions apply to people who are mentally ill and trying to purchase a gun. Do you see that as one of the really important questions emerging from the shootings on Saturday?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Well, yeah, I think so. I think people - I think everyone would agree this man should not have had a gun. And there's a question about whether the National Instant Check System was thorough enough to include him.

Was there something that should have been in there? Should he have come up because he had been diagnosed with a mental illness? Should there have been some restriction because he had an arrest for drug paraphernalia, even though it was dismissed? Was there some other thing that could have been in the system?

I know after Virginia Tech, the state of Virginia tried to tighten the reporting requirements for mental illness because, clearly, the man involved in that incident was mentally ill. And the question probably is out there today, you know, should there be more restrictions in this NICS database, as it's called?

But I think you'll also see some resistance from some people because there are even questions about veterans, some veterans may have had a mental illness, it may be okay now and believe that they ought to be permitted to carry a weapon.

And there is a little bit of pushback, maybe even a lot of pushback, from the Second Amendment folks who believe that some people may end up in that database who shouldn't be in the database.

GROSS: You and I recently spoke about your investigation into how guns sold in the United States end up in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels. It's relatively easy to buy a gun in Arizona. Are there a lot of guns from Arizona that are ending up in Mexico?

Mr. GRIMALDI: Yes. Arizona's the second-most-frequent state to have guns from Mexican crime scenes traced back to the United States, and one of the top 12 gun stores in the country is in Arizona. It's called Lone Wolf.

And the ATF is keeping an eye on that. They've busted up a number of gun-smuggling schemes out of the state of Arizona in the past several years. These are schemes that purchase, they purchase guns that go straight down into Mexico.

And in fact, one of their only prosecutions of a case, of a dealer that was involved, they believe knowingly, in gun-running to Mexico was prosecuted in Phoenix. In that case, the store owner was basically acquitted when the judge dismissed the case before it was finished being heard.

GROSS: Why did he dismiss the case?

Mr. GRIMALDI: The judge felt that the ATF had not produced enough evidence to prove the case, and they felt that they had not been able to trace the guns directly down into Mexico, back to the store and that the sale that the gun store was making was essentially a misdemeanor case, and he dismissed it.

GROSS: Well, James Grimaldi, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GRIMALDI: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: James Grimaldi is an investigative reporter with the Washington Post. He contributed to their series "The Hidden Life of Guns" and yesterday, wrote about Arizona's lenient gun laws. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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