Do Public Policies Reduce Gun Violence? Not If The Guns Are Still Around.

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The just-concluded meeting of the American Public Health Association in New Orleans featured a panel chaired by Ted Alcorn, a researcher at Everytown and an important voice in the search for answers to reducing gun violence.  Alcorn says that gun-control advocates need more data in order to develop public policies that “balance” 2nd-Amendment guarantees  against the human and financial costs of gun violence.  I’m basing my comments on a story that appeared in the Times-Picayune, but Alcorn’s views are mainstream for the gun safety movement, views with which, as a friend, I politely disagree.

I don’t believe there is some “middle ground” between gun ownership and gun violence from a policy point of view, and I further don’t believe that more data-mining will somehow provide the still-elusive strategy which will solve the problem of gun violence once and for all.  I have sold over 12,000 guns in my retail store and nobody ever bought a gun from me to take it home and lock it away.  They take the gun home to play with it, to dry-fire it while they are watching tv, to show it to their friends, their neighbors and their kids.  Oh yea, at the end of the day they’ll lock the gun up, if they remember to lock the gun up. But if they were really all that concerned about the potential lethality of the weapon, they probably wouldn’t buy it in the first place.

control                Recall how we dealt with cigarettes once everyone acknowledged that smoking was dangerous to your health.  The government adopted strategies to keep cigarettes out of the “wrong hands,” which were defined as children who had not yet begun to smoke.  So warning signs went on packs, dealers must check IDs, cigarette ads must be kept away from schools.  And the result?  Roughly one out of three adults were smokers in the 1960s, roughly one out of four were smokers in the 1980s, roughly one out of five are smokers today.  In other words, most of the decline in smoking took place before we instituted policies to keep cigarettes out of the “wrong hands.”

But the good news about smoking is that at least everyone knows and understands that cigarettes pose a health risk.  That’s certainly not the case with guns.  Not only has the gun lobby succeeded in convincing a majority of Americans, including non-gun owners, that guns actually make you safer if they’re lying around the house, the lobby is also busily engaged in convincing state legislatures that physicians shouldn’t be able to discuss guns with their patients at all.  And this has nothing to do with whether gun research is no longer funded by the CDC.  This is the result of a debate in which one side keeps looking for some middle ground while the other side has yet to acknowledge that a middle ground even exists.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not looking to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Even a small advance in public gun safety is better than no advance at all.  But notice the use of the word ‘public,’ because here is where the issue of gun control comes up short.  The problem with using a public health paradigm for gun violence is that many of the policies being advocated have nothing to do with the public.  Telling a gun owner that he has to lock up his guns is like telling a smoker that he can’t light up at home.  Telling a gun owner that he can’t sell one of his guns to a friend without going to a dealer and paying some extra dough for a background check is like telling a smoker that he can’t give a box of cigars as a gift.

The strength of the pro-gun lobby lies in the fact that they keep reminding gun owners that gun ownership is a private, not a public concern.  I agree with them and for that reason I also believe that ending gun violence can only take place by restricting private ownership of guns.  After all, we wouldn’t be worried about the effects of smoking if, in 1985, the government had paid 12,000 farmers to switch to another crop.

 

 

Gun Sales Are In The Tank But Don’t Expect The NRA To Compromise Its Views Anytime Soon

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Has anyone noticed what’s been happening to the gun business lately?  Smith & Wesson stock has collapsed, it’s trading for about half of the price of just five months’ ago; third-quarter net sales at Ruger dropped from $170 million to $98 million from the same quarter a year ago; and the industry’s most venerable gun maker – Colt – might have closed its doors altogether had it not been saved by a last-minute loan.

Gun sales started to slow down during the summer, which is normally when everyone in the gun industry takes a deep breath and begins planning for the fall and winter months when most of the industry’s sales take place.  But not only didn’t the usual rebound occur after Labor Day, they stayed flat in September and then really began to go South.  If you had purchased 10,000 shares of S&W on June 19, your investment today would be worth less than six thousand bucks. Meanwhile, the Dow during that same five-month period has surged upward by more than six percent.

nics                The gun industry usually uses the monthly NICS background check number to chart sales trends, but lately those numbers simply don’t square with the market conditions that have affected the balance sheets ot companies like Ruger, Colt and Smith.  While NICS checks have certainly dropped from the more than 2 million monthly numbers that were recorded at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, the numbers just published for October showed a slight increase over the previous month and the September number was the second-highest September ever recorded by NICS since the system became fully operational in 1999.

I’m going to tell you a dirty little secret about those NICS numbers.  What they really show is that more gun owners are registering gun transactions with NICS whether they need to or not.  In some states, like Connecticut, NICS calls are much higher because the new law requires that all gun transfers between individuals, not just between dealers and purchasers, go through NICS. New York State, where Andy pushed through a universal background check law right after Sandy Hook, is now running 30,000 checks a month when the state averaged less than 20,000 monthly before Sandy Hook.  Right after Connecticut mandated universal background checks there was stupid talk by Glenn Beck and other NRA apologists about how Connecticut gun owners were going to stage massive disobedience against the registration requirements of the new law.  These are the same [expletive-deleted] loudmouths who never miss the opportunity to remind the rest of us how ‘law abiding’ gun owners tend to be.  Now these law-abiding  patriots are going to start lining up to break the law?  Give me a friggin’ break.

Gun sales have always been a function of one thing and one thing only, namely, a fear among gun owners that the guns are going to be taken away. Right after the World Trade Center attack there was a brief spike in sales, but by the time it was noticed, it had already disappeared.  Even before Obama started talking about a gun bill after Newtown, Dianne Feinstein rolled out her assault rifle ban, and within two weeks you couldn’t find a black gun on any dealer’s shelves. I was selling the Stag AR-15 Model 3 in my shop when I could get them, for a thousand bucks a pop and other dealers were marking them up even more. Today I can go online and buy one for $736.89.

I don’t think the drop-off in gun sales will end anytime soon, particularly now that both legislative chambers in Washington are painted red.  But I also don’t think that the vulnerability of the gun industry will make its leadership more amenable to discussing effective strategies to curb the misuse of guns.  Because the one thing they know above all is that the anticipation of new gun controls will spur sales, but after the law is passed, gun ownership always declines.  If it goes much lower, the gun business will be in for a very rough time.

 

 

Score One For Everytown: Leno Quits Shot.

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That didn’t take long.  On Tuesday the word started going around that Jay Leno had been booked to appear at the 2015 SHOT Show, and by Wednesday afternoon, faced by a Tweet onslaught from Everytown and other gun-control groups, Leno pulled the plug and agreed not to show up.  The SHOT show is the gun industry’s premier trade event, allegedly open only to people who are connected to the gun industry in some way.  The truth is they’ll let you in even if your industry connection consists of the fact that you own guns, and if you wear a military uniform you don’t even have to own the gun yourself.

I started going to SHOT back in the early 1980s and the only thing that’s changed over the years is the products have become increasingly ‘tactical,’ with more emphasis on self-defense and much less interest in hunting and outdoor sports.  Lasers have replaced glass optics, hunting camo has given way to the military-wannabe look, and of course the guns are small, polymer and advertised as giving you the “edge” over bad guys, be they foreign bad guys, domestic bad guys, or whatever bad guys.  The show is a fraction of the size of a real, consumer-product show like COMDEX, but it’s the one place each year where dealers can see, touch and feel what they will be selling in their stores, and SHOT revenues make up a big chunk of the annual budget of the show’s sponsor, the NSSF.

leno                I’m not sure when the State of the Industry dinner started to attract headliners like Jay Leno.  But the truth is that since he left the Tonight Show earlier this year, he’s not such a headliner.  The last time I went to the Industry Dinner the performer was a right-wing comedian named Dennis Miller, who gave a standard, and somewhat stale anti-Obama spiel that even a room full of gun nuts didn’t receive with any great degree of response.  I used to occasionally watch Leno’s monologue and he always threw in a few wisecracks about whoever was sitting in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  I suspect that his publicist lined up the SHOT gig knowing they could always dig up a few one-liners that would go over with a pro-gun crowd.

I’m not surprised that Leno caved so quickly once Shannon raised the red flag.  Now that he’s off the tube, a guy like Leno depends on personal appearances to make ends meet, and the last thing he needs is an Everytown-led boycott a la what worked so well with Target stores.  I also suspect that whoever booked Leno into SHOT never imagined that anyone would know or care where his client showed up.  As they say in show business, a gig’s a gig, you take what you can get.

But what I did find interesting was the snarky and somewhat mealy-mouthed response of the NSSF.  The public statement began by noting that Leno “unilaterally” cancelled his appearance, obviously implying that the NSSF didn’t want him to quit, and then went on to decry “the bullying political tactics of the gun control groups that seem to have as little respect for the First Amendment as they continually demonstrate with regard to the Second Amendment.”  Gee, I had no idea the NSSF and the gun industry was so sensitive to 1st-Amendment issues, given their attempts to muzzle the free speech of physicians who might actually believe that a gun could possibly pose a health risk.

The statement concluded with the usual pat on the back the NSSF always gives itself for its phony safety program ChildSafe which allegedly distributes gun locks and gun safety literature hither and yon.  Except there has never been a single attempt by the NSSF or anyone else to figure out whether this program has even had a minimal safety effect.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t care whether Leno or anyone else shows up at SHOT, entertains the dinner crowd and leaves town with a check. But Shannon and her Everytown continue to level the playing field when it comes to talk about guns.  And that’s something the NSSF better not forget.

 

America’s Oldest Gun Manufacturer May Be Ready To Quit

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Last week the Colt Firearms Company came within an inch of defaulting on its major credit line, which might have meant the demise of America’s oldest, continually-operating industrial enterprise. This isn’t the first time that the most iconic name in small arms has faced financial Armageddon.  As recently as 2003, the company reorganized itself in an effort to stabilize production of civilian and military small arms, then tried an IPO in 2005 which was withdrawn when the investment market greeted the plan with no money and a big yawn.

Financial problems started plaguing the Hartford-based gun maker within a few decades following its founding in 1835.  The company, like most gun manufacturers, experienced substantial expansion during the Civil War, but a fire that destroyed much of the factory in 1864, coincided with a drop in government contracts that did not reverse itself until the Army adopted the “Peacemaker” revolver in 1873, placed an order for 8,000 units which probably kept the company from oblivion.  Once the Single Action Army revolver, as it was known, became an official military sidearm, it quickly caught on with law enforcement units and civilians, a pattern that Colt would repeat with John Browning’s greatest gun design, the 1911 pistol chambered in the venerable 45ACP.

colt peacemaker                Between 1911 and 1945, Colt delivered more than 3 million pistols to the Army, shipped several million more to customers overseas and used the gun to promote all its pistol and revolver products to civilians at home. The Colt logo, known as the “rampant Colt,” became a fixture throughout the gun industry and beyond; the company name and logo may have been the most identifiable consumer brand not only in the United States but overseas.  The good news about the 1911 pistol was that it functioned equally well whether it was chambered for 45 or 9mm, the latter much more popular in Europe than over here, as well as a hybrid caliber known as the 38 Super which was favored by military and law enforcement units in countries south of the Rio Grande.

While Smith & Wesson took much of the domestic law enforcement market away after World War II with its K-frame revolvers (the chief difference being that the S&W had less moving internal parts, hence, easier to repair and maintain), Colt made up for much of this deficit in the 1960s when it took over Gene Stoner’s rifle design and began producing the M-16.  The rifle remained a Colt product until the late 1980’s, when production stoppages and quality issues at the factory forced the government to give the contract to the Belgian arms maker FN.  And while Colt continues to manufacture variants of this rifle for armed forces here and abroad, there are at least ten other companies that have produced some portion of the 8 million M-16s that are still floating around the globe.  Meanwhile, on the civilian side, the semi-auto version of the gun, known as the AR-15, has long ago become the staple of various manufacturing companies like Bushmaster and Panther Arms, both of whom have outsold Colt in volume of sporting sales.

What really sunk the company to a secondary rank among American gun makers was the five-year UAW strike at the Hartford facility which resulted in handgun sales slowing to a trickle and, frankly, a majority of those guns being considered poorly made.  But worse, the disappearance of Colt from the handgun market came precisely at the time when hi-cap, European pistols like Beretta, Sig and Glock started to take over the American law enforcement market and thence into civilian hands.

When I was a kid, every boy owned a Tom Mix or Roy Rogers revolver ; my grandson has his own I-Phone but couldn’t care less about a name like Colt.  In the consumer market it’s what’s new that counts.  Guns are an old technology. Could the Colt situation presage the future of the gun industry as a whole?

 

 

Chronic Violence Can Be Reduced If We Understand That It’s Chronic

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If you are interested in gun violence, then sooner or later you have to pay some attention to the issue of violence in general, if only because you really can’t have one without the other.  In that respect, it’s worthwhile to read a new article on violence that is based on a two-year study of ER-admitted patients between the ages of 14 and 24 in Flint, Michigan – that’s right – the same Flint made famous by Michael Moore in his Roger and Me 1989 documentary that made both the filmmaker and the city famous.  When Moore made his film the city was in the throes of a virtual collapse given the closing of its GM plant and the collapse of related industries; now the city’s poverty rate is 40% so you can’t say that things have improved very much, right?

On the other hand, what comes out in this study is that poverty and related social ills does not, in and of itself, necessarily account for recurring, violent injuries in the group selected for this study.  In fact, what seems to be the overwhelming factor in promoting recurring violence is the outbreak of violence in the first place.  And this finding is demonstrated brilliantly in this study because the researchers had the good sense to not only look closely at 349 subjects who sought ED medical care for violent injury over a two-year period, but to compare this population to 250 persons in the same age cohort who came in initially for non-violent injury during the same two-year period.

violence                Guess what?  Both groups had a fairly similar public assistance profile (78% and 70%), a very similar racial profile (African-Americans were 63% and 56% respectively),the exact same marijuana use (nearly 100% in both groups) and virtually identical criminal records (13%-12%.)  In other words, being underprivileged, prone to using drugs and having contact with criminal justice doesn’t necessarily lead to violent behavior, at least not of the type that results in continuous visits to an ER for serious injuries, up to and including death.

I should mention one brief corrective, namely, the authors’ comments about the cost of such behavior.  They quote a study published by the Urban Institute in 2013 which found that firearm injuries alone cost $630 million, most of which has to absorbed by the publicly-funded medical system.  On the other hand, Jarone Lee and others recently published an article in Surgery which might place those costs much higher, although they defined the problem in a somewhat different context than what was used by the authors who wrote for the urban Institute.  But this is a minor squabble and shouldn’t take away from the remarkable study on recurrent injury that needs to be read and circulated for the following reason.

What the researchers on recurrent violence found was not only that multiple ER visits for violent injury was segmented between the two groups whereas both groups shared demographic and social conditions in common, but the most frequent rate of recurrence was in the first six months following discharge from the initial visit for violent injury.  This clearly indicates that recurring violence is, as the research team says, a chronic disease and should be treated as such.  But, in contrast to other chronic diseases like asthma and diabetes, there is no management plan for recurring violence that could be used to cut ED costs, never mind reduce the social impact of the disease on its victims.

If a consensus ever emerged on how to deal with tis chronic illness called recurring violence, it would have to include a sub-plan for dealing with guns.  The FBI tells us that more than 80% of all homicides involve people who knew each other before the murder took place.  Take a chronic perpetrator or victim of violent injury, put a gun in his hand and it will go off.  This study strongly suggests that immediate, post-discharge intervention might cut down the rate of violent injury.  Which means that such interventions must include keeping this population away from guns.

Do Guns Make Us More Or Less Safe? The NRA Seems To Be Winning The Argument

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In 1993 Art Kellerman, Frederick Rivara and several other colleagues published an article which found that guns in the home increased the risk of homicide in the home.  I recall reading this article a year after it was published and wondered how something so incontrovertible; i.e., guns are lethal, needed to be validated in a peer-reviewed medical journal.  I didn’t understand it then and I still don’t understand it now.  Of course there are lots of ways that you can kill someone, but a gun really doesn’t have any other purpose.  It’s not like a knife which you can also use to cut a slice of steak.

Nevertheless, within a year after this article appeared, the gun folks produced a contrary argument about guns, in their case an alleged national survey conducted by Gary Kleck, who claimed on the basis of an alleged 213 telephone interviews that Americans used guns each year to prevent more than 2 million crimes.  Did his publication appear in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal?  No.  Did he attempt to validate in any way the reports of respondents who said they used a gun to prevent a crime? No.  But Kleck’s argument became the basic selling-point for justifying gun ownership and it remains the war-cry of the pro-gun movement to this day.  After all, even if Kellerman was right and guns lying around the home resulted in higher levels of injury and death, what’s 30,000 deaths from guns when compared to 2 million crimes that didn’t take place?

cdc logo     Meanwhile, within two years after Kellerman’s article appeared, the NRA successfully moved to cut off funding by the CDC of all gun violence research, citing Kellerman’s work among others as promoting a negative view of guns, gun ownership and gun owners, not necessarily in that order.  The debate between pro-gun and anti-gun advocates continued and went over the top again after Sandy Hook, with the two sides basically holding to the positions taken by Kellerman and Kleck.  According to groups like the Violence Policy Center and others who want more controls over guns, the greater number of guns floating around, the more violence will take place.  The NRA counters this argument by saying that every law-abiding citizen should be walking around with a gun because it’s all those good guys carrying guns that will stop the bad guys before any harm is done.

In 2011 David Hemenway published a review of the literature on this argument (through 2007) and found that the published studies confirming the idea that more guns equals more violence outpaced the published studies that argued the reverse by something like 20 to 1.  In other words, despite the fact that public health research on guns had not been funded by the CDC for more than ten years, when it came to the written word on this subject, the folks who said that guns constituted a social risk as opposed to a social benefit were way out in front.

There was only one little problem.  In the place where the argument really counts, the arena of public opinion, the folks who believe that guns are a risk have fallen far behind. This week the Gallup Organization published a poll on whether Americans feel safer around guns, the fourth time they have conducted this poll in the last 14 years.  In 2000, the poll showed that 35% of respondents thought the house with a gun safer and 51% thought it was less safe.  This year, more than 60% thought a house with a gun was safer and only 30% believed it to be less safe.

Why is there such a clear disconnect between the consensus among health researchers and the general public regarding the safety of guns.  Somehow, the results of an awful lot of research doesn’t seem to be getting through.  I’ve been a gun guy all my life and if anyone tries to convince me that guns aren’t lethally dangerous, it’s a discussion that will come to a quick end. But it’s not a discussion that seems to be happening between gun scholars and anyone else.

For Guns, Red States Are Red, Blue States Are Still Blue

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If this election said  anything about the politics of guns, it showed that the alignment between political ideology and gun ownership is just about as fixed as it can be.  If you are a pro-gun politician in a red state, the gun issue won’t help you win a close race because everyone in the red states tends to be pro-gun.  If you are a pro-gun politician in a blue state, however, try as you might, the pro-gun folks just can’t swing an election your way and gun control initiatives have a good chance to succeed.

Last year, right around the anniversary of Sandy Hook, the  New York Times ran a state-by-state analysis of new gun statutes that were passed and signed into law.  It turned out that more than 1,500 measures were introduced into state legislatures, of which 39 tightened laws tightened what the Times called “restrictions” and 70 loosened them.  The study showed, not surprisingly, that most of the more restrictive laws were passed where Democrats hold a majority of the legislative seats and the Governor’s Mansion or both, whereas the less-restrictive laws were passed in states that are politically red.

In last week’s election the alignment of red and blue states with looser or tighter gun laws continued its usual course.  Washington passed I-594 because going directly to the voters was a way of getting around a legislature which is more  blue than red but has some Democrats representing areas away from the Coast where gun ownership is supported on both sides.  On the other hand, Alabama passed an amendment to the State Constitution that gave every resident the right to bear arms and required any gun control laws to be subject to ‘strict scrutiny,’ which basically means that no gun control laws will ever be passed.  Could an amendment bringing back the poll tax pass a statewide vote in the Cotton State?  Probably.

malloy                The interesting twist in all of this came in a blue state – Connecticut – where the incumbent Governor held on to win by a thin margin in an election that many thought would go the other day.  The Governor, Dan Malloy, held on to beat Tom Foley, who was challenging him for the second time and Foley tried to remind the voters again and again that if elected, he would try to undo the tough, new gun law that Malloy pushed through the legislature after Sandy Hook.  After the bill went into effect stories circulated about how thousands and thousands of CT residents were refusing to register their assault rifles, but when all was said and done, nobody thought to call out the police to ransack homes and drag in all these alleged non-compliant owners of black guns.

Foley never actually said he would repeal Malloy’s gun law even though again and again he said it went “too far.” But criticizing the new law was one thing, taking credit for it was something else.  And a new poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress suggests that Malloy may actually owe his razor-thin victory, in part, to how voters, particularly female voters responded to his legislation on guns.  It turns out that 43% of nearly 700 voters said that the gun bill made them more likely to send the Governor back to office for another four years, while only 31% felt less likely to vote for him over the gun issue and support for universal background checks among women ran 50 to 19.

It will be interesting to see if the gun issue will play a significant role in the run-up to 2016.  It’s clearly still a “niche” issue, and niche issues can swing tight elections as the Foley campaign found out.  The NRA, whose own approval numbers appear to be slipping, has been trying to sell the idea for years that gun ownership is a basic civil right.  It might be a line that sells in Peoria, but it’s not working in parts of the country that still vote blue.

 

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