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Aug. 19, 2008

Fenway billboard again a canvas for gun-control message

The 250-by-20-foot billboard along the Massachusetts Turnpike will get a new look today. It will feature a counter displaying the number of American children and teens killed by guns daily.

Courtesy Stop Handgun Violence

The 250-by-20-foot billboard along the Massachusetts Turnpike will get a new look today. It will feature a counter displaying the number of American children and teens killed by guns daily.

The gun-control activist whose provocative billboards have been turning heads along the Massachusetts Turnpike for 13 years today will unveil one of his most eye-popping messages yet - a fake neon advertisement for American gun shows where people can buy weapons, no questions asked.

“We Sell Guns! No ID required. No background checks. Criminals and terrorists welcome!” the billboard peals.

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“Gun shows are the equivalent of Al Qaeda terrorists walking directly onto the airplane while you and I wait in the TSA line,” John Rosenthal, founder and chairman of Stop Handgun Violence, said in a recent interview. “They don’t want us to go on airplanes but they let Al Qaeda buy guns unprotected.”

At 5,000 gun shows in 32 states, people can buy guns without undergoing a background check or being asked for identification, according to Stop Handgun Violence. Though dealers at gun shows are federally licensed and are required to contact the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, private sellers can trade guns unchecked in those states.

Gun-control advocates have seized on fears about terrorism to advance their cause and expose the disparities in the system, arguing that a nation cracking down on security in so many other areas is leaving gaps around gun ownership. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, gun laws were only weakened, Rosenthal asserts. The FBI is now required to destroy most records of gun purchases after 24 hours.

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The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives stopped releasing statistics on traced guns - a number that at one time showed that 57 percent of guns used in crimes came from 1.2 percent of dealers - after cities began using the data in suits against gun manufacturers. The National Rifle Association and others argued that the information should remain confidential and was misleading because not all traced guns had been used in crimes.

Rosenthal, who owns the 252-foot-long billboard on his Lansdowne Street parking garage near Fenway Park, has stoked passions for years with his iconic highway messages, including last year’s faux ransom note from the NRA that read, “We have your President and Congress.” The ads are designed, at no cost, by the chic Boston ad shop Modernista, which also does ads for Cadillac, Hummer, and Napster.

But an area gun-rights advocate said the billboard’s point is moot in Massachusetts, where there are very few gun shows, and restrictive gun laws require licensing and registration for all gun buyers. No one can buy a gun in Massachusetts without undergoing a background check.

“It’s a nonissue especially in Massachusetts,” said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners Action League.

Wallace challenged the premise that gun shows are leaking weapons to criminals and said it has not been proven by statistics. “So far, we’ve never been given any evidence that they’re a problem,” he said.

He opposes the idea of asking people for background checks or identification at gun shows, even if they are suspected terrorists listed on a terrorist watch list.

“If you’re going to limit a person’s civil rights, you’ve got to have a darn good reason why you’re doing that,” Wallace said. “It’s not because you’re suspected of doing something or because we believe you might do something. If you’re prevented from owning a firearm that means your civil rights are removed.”

Instead, he said, criminals should be put behind bars. “If these people are dangerous, I don’t want them in the supermarket, never mind a gun show,” said Wallace.

Stop Handgun Violence points to gun shows as the source of weapons used in the Columbine school shooting - purchased by a friend for the teens - as well as the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, whose leader made regular purchases at flea markets and gun shows, an ATF arrest warrant said.

In addition, the group points to gun show purchases made by Muhammad Asrar, arrested in an investigation of the Sept. 11 attacks, and Ali Boumelhem, who was convicted of conspiracy to ship weapons to the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“Gun shows are not a problem in Massachusetts. But they’re an enormous problem for Massachusetts,” Rosenthal said. “Gun shows are a known source of crime guns for terrorists and criminals because they can buy guns in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and 32 states in total without an ID or a background check from private sellers.”

The new ad is to be unveiled this morning with Mayor Thomas M. Menino, state Secretary of Public Safety and Security Kevin M. Burke, Massachusetts State Police Commander Colonel Mark F. Delaney, and Boston Police Superintendent Bruce Holloway .

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