Judge Calvin Johnson retired in 2008 after 17 years on the bench at the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court. He recently sat down with filmmaker John Ritchie for The Gun Report.
What do you think about our federal gun laws?
Federal gun laws are so lacking in terms of creating a way to keep us safe – the notion that under the federal law all Americans are not required to actually get a permit for a gun, to go through a real background check for that gun, to have a waiting period before they can acquire a gun, to go through some training before they can acquire a gun, to actually be able to state in some clear terms why is it that you have to have a gun.
I know that some of that for America is Draconian. But what I just described exists in most of the countries we associate with. So when we say that the worst of us can with ease acquire a gun, we have created in our society the havoc we see in our streets, and we have created it by lack of law, lack of rule.
Do you own a gun?
I own an 1880 Remington 44-caliber rifle. It was my grandfather’s gun. There are some stories about him being a Buffalo Soldier and that’s how he got the gun. It is a military issued weapon. So yes, I do own a gun. It’s under glass in my house and it has the info I just gave you about it attached to it.
What is your relationship with guns?
My father owned lots of guns. My father owned rifles, handguns, six-shooters. Keep in mind my father was born in 1902. However, my father stopped hunting in the early ‘50s, when he was in his early 50s, and he stopped because of an accident. He shot his best friend thru the neck in a hunting accident. So he never went hunting again. He never took his kids hunting. I never went hunting with my father. He got rid of all those guns I talked about. He saved that one, his father’s gun, the only one he kept and he gave that gun to me. So I never went hunting. I never did.
What do you think about gun control laws?
I just think we ought to control guns. There are so many ways we have correlated the data as regards guns and violence and no guns and no violence. Those states with weak gun laws are states with higher amounts of gun violence. Then those states with stronger gun laws have less gun violence. Those things are absolutely correct in terms of correlation. So if we are going to reduce in Louisiana, which is one of the top five states in terms of gun violence, then we need to have some gun control. Otherwise we’re going to continue having what we have.
We’ve allowed those with a great interest in gun ownership to define the narrative. We’ve allowed them to control the entirety of the conversation and those who disagree find themselves cowering in a corner.
What happens if we don’t start doing a better job of this?
We continue seeing what we’re seeing, the gun violence that we see. If you couldn’t go to these gun shows and couldn’t do the sort of purchasing you do at these gun shows, if we have real records, nationally maintained, then if that gun is used in a violent case we know who purchased that gun.
So we can start to limit the amount of violent behavior that comes from this by simply making it controllable in terms of who actually has guns. There are some guns that there is no value for other than blowing up buildings or blowing up cars. For those who argue I want to be able to hunt, OK, all well and good. But you don’t need the equivalent of a machine gun to do that with. There are some kinds of guns that should be outlawed period.
Who can buy a gun, who can have a gun … we ought to know. With some certainty.
Has the justice system changed in terms of its perception of guns?
If you go back in time, the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, we were not nearly as fixated on any of this as we are today.
In your experience in the criminal justice system, did you see that gun ownership escalated violence?
Sure. Absolutely, in terms of domestic violence, where you don’t have the involvement of a firearm, there’s a greater likelihood that neither individual in that piece will end up dead. If there is a firearm involved, then you can see exponentially you increase the likelihood that one is going to end up dead. The number of instances of cases today that come through Criminal District Court where one of the persons involved was armed, and the other shot – not necessarily killed – the number of instances are legion.
If you look at people who may be a step or two away from that break, that psychotic break that sometimes leads to this kind of violent episode, if they don’t have the gun, you can’t have the result that comes with the gun. I just can’t understand what keeps us as a society from recognizing this and from doing something about it. I just can’t understand.
When you think in terms of the number of people who accidentally die because of guns — the 3-year-old who shoots his sister, the 4-year-old who shoots his mother, the 8-year-old who shoots his grandfather, all accidentally, playing with guns – it happens over and over again. If there was a requirement of a gunlock, then that child could not do that.
How many people who came before you in court would not have passed a background check for a gun?
Difficult to say. We know that certain convicted felons in Louisiana cannot own a firearm. But their friend, their daddy, their sister, their brother can purchase a gun. Of course, they’re breaking the law being in possession of a gun. But the friend or girlfriend are arguably breaking the law, too.
What should we do?
Yes, we have a right to own a gun. But that right can be determined by government, just like we can control who can drive a car. And we do it because we know that a car is a dangerous weapon. We should do the same kind of thing with guns. Yes, you can own a car, but you’ve got to do these things first. Yes, you can own a gun, but you’ve got to do these things first. There’s nothing wrong with that. And that conforms to the Second Amendment, to our Constitutional right to own a gun.
We need to forthwith put gun control on our agenda in this country and we need to have it said and done so that we can truly say that we have become an adult – an adult – society.
The Gun Report is a series of conversations about gun safety in New Orleans sponsored by NolaVie and 91%, John Richie’s upcoming documentary about background checks for gun purchasers. We want you to join the conversation with personal anecdotes and commentary. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.