Barbara Shelly: Every gun incident becomes part of the debate

Joshua Bailey never got to see the end of Sunday's Super Bowl. The party he was hosting ended in calamity, with a friend dead and the criminal justice system confirming what Bailey had predicted when he phoned 911. "I'm going to jail," he told the dispatcher.

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Joshua Anderson, which police believe was accidental, Platte County, Mo., Prosecutor Eric G. Zahnd announced that Bailey was charged with unlawfully discharging a firearm while intoxicated, involuntary manslaughter, armed criminal action and possessing a firearm as a felon.

While disclosing the charges, Zahnd also used the opportunity to make an unusual declaration. In his opinion, the gun-related homicide in his county should not be fodder for the gun debate.

"There has been a lot of politically charged discussion recently regarding gun rights," Zahnd said in a news release. "This case has nothing to do with that debate. Personally, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. But virtually everyone agrees that only law-abiding citizens should safely and responsibly possess firearms."

Bailey was convicted in 2003 of possessing a controlled substance. Some ex-felons do become law-abiding citizens. But under federal law they can never again possess a firearm, as Bailey is accused of doing.

Whatever his personal views on guns, Zahnd is not a prosecutor who tolerates irresponsible firearm use.

"What we can all agree on is when we've got a felon in possession, or an intoxicated person with a firearm, we're going to prosecute on that," he said when we talked by phone.

He said he worded his news release the way he did because "I wanted this case to be about this case. I didn't want it to be used as a poster child either way."

Unfortunately, though, every gun-related homicide inevitably works its way into the gun debate, and the fact that Bailey wasn't supposed to have a gun doesn't change the fact that he did.

If ownership and use of firearms were limited only to law-abiding, responsible citizens, the gun debate would indeed be null and void. But it's much too late for that. Our nation is awash in firearms, and the debate we need to have is about using new and existing tools to minimize their damage.

In the Platte County case, we can start by asking where Bailey's weapon came from.

Felony record notwithstanding, he would have found it very easy to obtain the 9mm handgun that he allegedly was showing off in his Riverside apartment when a bullet discharged and hit Anderson in the head.

He could have purchased it at a gun show. He could have gotten it from a friend or family member. He could have purchased it over the Internet, where guns are bought and sold with virtually no questions asked.

Greg Mills, Riverside's director of public safety, said officers will attempt to determine where Bailey obtained the gun he shouldn't have had. I hope they figure it out; the answer would be illuminating.

And then we can talk about universal background checks. Every sale or transfer of a handgun should be run through the federal background check system, a database of criminal records and mental health records supplied by federal and state courts and agencies. That system would have flagged Bailey, and increased the chances of his party ending in nothing more serious than a bad hangover.

Had he obtained a gun anyway, a universal background check requirement would give law enforcement a tool to crack down on people who give weapons to people who aren't supposed to have them.

Recent opinion polls show overwhelming public backing for universal background checks. Responsible gun owners strongly support them. The leadership of the National Rifle Association stands nearly alone in its opposition. Surely our political leaders can get this one big thing done, and then we can debate the rest of it.

Every homicide, gun-related or not, is a tragedy in isolation. Zahnd is right about that. But no act of gun violence can be exempted from the larger debate. It is the weight of them, the sheer, unbelievable volume, that makes the conversation so essential.

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. E-mail,

By Barbara Shelly