Why Do Americans Favor Background Checks And Oppose More Gun Control?

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Of late there seems to be lots of pitter-patter about national polls which show that Americans are in favor of expanded background checks but are against more gun control.  The consensus among what I call the gun-sense community is that this contradiction is the result of the NRA’s relentless quest to make ‘gun control’ a toxic term.  So an effort appears to be taking shape to find another way to describe measures that will curb gun violence without raising the hackles of 2nd-Amendment supporters and their political friends.

I think the polling results need to be understood in a different way.  National polls tend to disguise the degree to which gun ownership varies enormously from place to place.  More than two-thirds of the guns currently owned by Americans can be found in the 13 Old Confederate states, 3 border states and the rural swatches of 5 Midwest states.  Together this territory contains about 40% of the U.S. population and, for the most part, politically speaking, is painted red. The remainder of the country, particularly the Northeast corridor, the West Coast and the urban Midwest, contains a majority of the U.S. population but also contains far fewer guns.  In gun-rich states like North Carolina or Kansas, per capita gun ownership runs at least 50%.  In states like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, the number falls to 20% or even less.
brady2               Gun ownership has become a potent wedge issue for Republicans in gun-rich states.  The redder the state, the more you hear appeals to ‘2nd-Amendment rights’ even when the politician making the appeal is talking about something that has nothing to do with guns.  On the other hand, in Connecticut the NRA and its local allies couldn’t prevent Dannel Malloy from capturing a second term, and strident calls to gun owners to defeat the ‘gun-grabber’ may have actually widened his lead.

Meanwhile, even though a national poll might not accurately capture sentiment about gun control, how do we square those results with the polls which show an overwhelming support for additional gun control measures, such as expanding background checks?  I have always been leery of assuming that just because a gun owner is in favor of keeping guns out of the “wrong hands,” he will turn around and support specific measures to accomplish that goal.  If you were to tell a gun owner that expanding background checks to cover private sales is a good and proven way to keep guns out of the wrong hands, there’s a pretty good chance that he’ll say ‘count me in’.  But if you tell him, which no poll that I know of has actually ever said, that making it harder for disqualified people to buy guns will mean that he can’t go to a gun shop, buy a rifle and then leave it under the tree for his son to unpack on Christmas Day, he’ll tell you to take your background checks and jump off you know where.

The reason that the NRA’s message about gun control is so effective is not so much because the average gun owner thinks that one day he will lose all his guns. There’s an element of that in the consciousness of gun folks, but much more in their minds is that almost all of them have not only shown themselves to be law-abiding as hell in order to own guns, but they have never even considered doing something illegal or dangerous with the guns they own.  Given that case, why should they support new gun laws that will force them to jump through more legal hoops?

I don’t think my friends who advocate for more gun safety are going to get around this problem by calling gun control by another name while promoting sensible proposals that, by the way, will widen legal controls over guns.  Which is no reason, of course, to stop or lessen meaningful strategies to make us safer from the violence caused by guns.



What Should Physicians Do About Guns? Tell The Truth.

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Last week I attended a conference on medicine and gun violence in which a cross-section of researchers and clinicians focused on how to figure out if patients are at risk for gun violence and how to intervene appropriately when such a clinical situation appears to exist.  The problem raises medical, legal and ethical issues involving proper patient care, privacy, liability and other questions that the medical profession has been wrestling with for a long time but have really come home to roost this year.  Three states have now passed laws limiting the degree to which physicians can ask patients about guns and only a last-minute surge of votes from Democratic Senators who will shortly be replaced by Republicans allowed a Surgeon General to be confirmed whose views are decidedly anti-gun.

Throughout the conference I kept listening to presentations which were based on an assumption about medicine and guns which I’m not sure is really true.  And the assumption goes like this: in order to effectively raise the issue of gun risk, the physician must first determine whether a patient is, indeed, a risk to himself or others if he has access to a gun.  And if the physician determines that the patient is, in fact, a health risk if there’s a gun around, how do you determine the degree of gun access without invading the patient’s right to privacy or infringing on his right to own a gun whether he’s a risk for gun violence or not?

docs versus glocks                The reason I’m not comfortable with this assumption is because I happen to believe one simple thing about guns, namely, that if there is a gun lying around, locked or unlocked, the risk of gun injury is simply much greater than if the gun doesn’t exist.  To borrow a phrase from the late Elmore Leonard, “Don’t fool with guns in here, okay? The goddamn piece’s liable to go off.”  Now researchers can parse all the data with a fine-tooth comb from today until next year, but the bottom line is exactly what Leonard says: if it’s around sooner or later it’s going to go off.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not anti-gun, no matter what many people who read this blog and others will choose to believe.  I currently own two black guns, a Colt H-Bar and a Ruger Mini-14, along with a Mossberg tactical shotgun, a Marlin 30-30, without doubt the single best deer gun ever made, and one of those Remington 700s in 270 Winchester which might go off even if the trigger isn’t pulled.  Not that I’m against handguns, for that matter, because I also own every Glock in 9, the two John Browning masterpieces, a Colt 1911 and a P-35, a Walther PP in 22, another Walther PP in 32, a little TPH for when I’m out walking in shorts, three or four K-frame Smiths and just for good measure, a S&W Model 39. And I almost forgot the two Sigs I own, the new little guys in 380 and 9. But I know one thing about all my toys – put a round in the chamber, pull the trigger and if someone’s standing in the direction in which the gun is pointed, they’re going down.

It’s all well and good that physicians are concerned about how to make guns safer, how to keep them out of the “wrong” hands, how to lock them up or lock them away.  But I think what doctors should do is always tell all their patients that a gun can cause real harm.  And they should say it again and again. My internist doesn’t ask whether I smoke before cautioning me not to light up a cigarette.  Pediatricians don’t ask parents whether they fasten the child’s seatbelt before reminding them to make sure the kids ride safe.  The role of the physician, every physician, is to reduce harm.  Not having a gun reduces harm.  The patient doesn’t agree with you, that’s fine.  But you did what is required and expected of you, which was to say something true about risk from guns.

Between Bushmaster And Murthy It Wasn’t Such A Great Week.

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It hasn’t been such a great week for the gun business.  First and most important, gun sales are really in the tank and don’t show any signs of improving. Ruger stock, which hit an all-time high of $85 a share back in January, closed yesterday at under $35. Smith & Wesson, which was at $17 in June, is now selling for around $9.  Nobody expected these companies to maintain the sales numbers they posted over the last several years when everyone believed that a new gun bill would somehow squeak through in DC.  But nobody also thought that the industry would bottom out so deep and so fast.  I walked into a gun shop on the North Shore this past weekend and walked out with a Colt H-Bar AR-15 for a little over seven hundred bucks.  It was used but mint and six months ago the same gun would have fetched at least a grand.

Talking about black guns, the long-rumoured lawsuit by parents of children shot by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook was filed just before the deadline that would have made such wrongful-death claims null and void.  The suit goes after Bushmaster, the manufacturer of the XL-15 that Lanza evidently used with terrible results the day he walked into the school.  The good news for the plaintiffs is that Bushmaster is owned by a private investment group, Cerberus, which has some really deep pockets.  The bad news is that the suit has to somehow get around the 2005 law which immunized gun makers from most claims of negligence or product liability and stymied other victims of mass shootings, such as the Aurora Theater massacre, from seeking damages from the gun maker even though suits against the theater and the seller of the ammunition used by James Holmes have gone forward.

      Vivek Murthy, M.D.

Vivek Murthy, M.D.

What’s different about the Bushmaster suit, however, is that it takes issue with one of the most cherished missives in the gun industry, namely, the idea that the AR-15 is a perfectly-acceptable weapon for civilians because, as opposed to its military likeness, the M-16, it fires only one shot every time the trigger is pulled, whereas the M-16 is a machine gun that fires a massive amount of ordnance and therefore is unsuited and illegal for civilian use.  The moment the lawsuit was filed, various gun experts began pushing the semi-auto versus the full-auto story to explain why the legal argument wouldn’t work.  The only problem with the alleged difference between the M-16 and the AR-15 is that it’s simply not true.  Most of the M-16 rifles currently carried by U.S. troops in Iraq and elsewhere are semi-auto guns (a small number can also shoot 3-shot bursts) because the military long ago discovered that automatic fire was not only inaccurate and a waste of ammunition, but also would heat up the barrel to unacceptable temperatures leading to battlefield failures of the gun. Bushmaster touts the sale of its rifles to the U.S. military on its website – the gun purchased by Nancy Lanza was one and the same thing.

The other piece of bad news for the industry was the confirmation of Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General, an appointment that was contested loudly and continuously by the NRA and its most ardent Senate supporters, in particular Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. These two guys started taking pot-shots at Murthy because they saw it as a quick and easy way to begin building support among the conservative, Republican base as a possible step towards a White House bid in 2016.  The NRA has been trying to push physicians away from any discussion about guns because virtually every medical society has for years confirmed the bizarre idea that maybe, just maybe guns are a threat to health.  Now the fact that more Americans have died from gun violence in the last ten years than died during World War II doesn’t mean that guns are necessarily harmful, does it?  If you want to agree with the NRA on that one, you probably also believe that last week didn’t hurt the gun industry at all.



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Do Good Guys With Guns Stop Bad Guys? The Violence Policy Center Says No

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The Violence Policy Center has just released an update on its ongoing report about shootings committed by individuals with concealed-carry permits and the information deserves to be studied in detail.  The issuance of CCW has been a hot-button issue for the ‘gun-rights’ movement ever since Gary Kleck published a study in 1994 which claimed that more than 2.5 million crimes were prevented every year by Americans walking around with guns.  The gun industry and its allies like the NRA jumped on this still-unproven argument because, as Wayne-o said after Sandy Hook, “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  And since anyone with a concealed-carry permit is, by definition, one of the good guys, the gun industry and its supporters work overtime trying to get concealed-carry accepted as the law of the land.

The CCW movement has made great strides over the past twenty years.  Back in 1990, less than 20 states gave residents concealed-carry permits except in response to applications which cited specific business need (security guards, carrying cash, etc.)  Since that time, most state legislatures have passed laws that make concealed-carry no more onerous than what is required legally to keep a gun in the home, and a majority of CCW permits are issued with little or no training required at all.  Not only is it easier to get CCW in most states, but a concealed gun can usually be carried into shopping malls, restaurants and bars.

vpc                Even though violent crime rates have tumbled by more than half over the last twenty years, there’s no necessary connection, despite what the gun-rights lobby says, between this trend and the expansion of CCW, for the simple reason that more than 90% of the decline in violent crime occurred between 1993 and 2002, whereas the expansion in CCW took place largely over the last ten years.  But what appears to have increased with the spread of CCW are the number of fatal shootings by individuals who were lawful CCW-holders at the time they committed these violent acts.

I’m not surprised if more CCW permits results in more gun shootings.  After all, as the novelist Walter Mosley says, “If you walk around with a gun, it’s going to go off sooner or later.”  Where the guns seem to go off sooner rather than later is in Florida, which recorded 68 killings by CCW-holders since 2007.  This represents 10% of all CCW killings that the VPC was able to document which took place in a state that holds 3% of the nation’s total population.  Admittedly the VPC numbers are incomplete, because like most efforts to understand gun violence, the data is fragmentary and based on partial media reports.  VPC’s analysis also ignores gun suicides committed by legal gun owners, many of whom no doubt also had CCW privileges before they died.

I know many pro-gun activists who wouldn’t dispute the VPC numbers but would argue that an average of 100 fatal shootings each year by CCW-holders is a small price to pay for the thousands of fatal gun assaults that are prevented because law-abiding Americans can walk around with guns.  I have been listening to this nonsense since 1994 when Kleck first published the results of his so-called research, but it was the VPC report that made me finally try and test whether this claim is true.

The FBI has been compiling data on justifiable homicides, defined as the killing of a felon during the commission of a felony, since 1994.  In fact, since 2007, the same time-period covered by the VPC report, American civilians committed 1,023 justifiable homicides with handguns which, if you were to add CCW suicides to CCW homicides at best the whole thing would be a wash.  The NRA and its allies have steadfastly refused to recognize the FBI data on justifiable homicide because the numbers, when compared to national CCW population, are pathetically small.  No matter which way you cut it, the good guys ain’t doing such an impressive job with their guns.

Let’s Call Gun Control What It Really Is: Gun Control.

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In the aftermath of the successful campaign to extend background checks in Washington State, the gun-control movement will probably try to renew the push for background checks at the federal level, as well as on a state-by-state basis.  In this regard, the Brady Organization sent out a press release touting the latest figures on background checks in a report compiled and published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics which shows, among other things, that the background check system has prevented 2.4 million sales of guns to what Brady calls “dangerous” people, a.k.a. individuals who could not pass a NICS check while attempting to purchase a gun.

Brady then goes on to quote from a Quinnipiac University poll conducted last July which found that 92 percent of voters, including gun owners, favored background checks on all gun sales, with even Republican voters calling for an expansion of background checks to the tune of 86-11 percent.  This poll, and similar polls by Pew conducted after Sandy Hook, are so clearly contrary to what happened with the Senate bill that was defeated in 2013, that I was always suspicious of the claims about the ability of the NRA to strong-arm legislators at the federal level and kill gun-control legislation before it gets out of the gate. I could see where a gun bill, or any bill for that matter would probably fail in Congress if the public were more or less evenly split, as we seem to be on such issues as climate control or foreign affairs.  But if 9 out of 10 voters in a representative and credible national poll claim to be in favor of expanded background checks and you can’t find 5 Republicans to join 55 Democrats to vote up the bill, then with all due respct to the muscle of the NRA, something’s clearly out of whack.

brady               And where it appears to be out of whack is in the Quinnipiac poll itself, because every time the poll is referenced, the results of one additional question somehow, don’t ask me how, never seem to find their way into the media advisories that are sent out by the organizations that are promoting more background checks.  And here’s the question which directly followed the questions on expanding background checks to cover private gun sales: “Are you in favor of stricter gun control laws?”  And here’s the response: 50 percent said ‘yes’ and 47 percent said ‘no.’  In other words, basically a dead heat.

With all due respect to my friends in the gun safety movement, or the gun-control movement, or the common-sense movement , or whatever sobriquet they choose to use for the important and necessary work that they do, the gap between public perceptions about something called “background checks” and the whole issue of “gun control” needs to be addressed.  Because the fact is that the NRA and its allies base their entire opposition to background checks on the idea that it represents  a ‘slippery-slope’ which will eventually lead to complete gun control which will then lead to all the guns being taken away.

It’s a stupid and silly argument but the NRA rolls it out every time.  The problem with polls that try to determine public attitudes about background checks is that the respondents are never asked whether they understand that background checks and gun control are one and the same thing.  The fact is that ‘gun control’ has become a toxic phrase with certain groups, particularly gun owners, and you’re not going to win them over by pretending that forcing everyone to register every gun transaction is something other than what it really is.  The NRA promotes gun ownership by claiming without a shred of valid evidence that guns protect us against crime.  If our side wants to promote policies that will reduce gun violence, there’s no reason why we should be afraid to say what we really mean.

Everytown Updates Its Report On School Shootings And It’s A Must Read.

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Want to see one of the best and most penetrating videos on gun violence?  Take a look at the new Everytown video that was mounted to coincide with the two-year anniversary of Sandy Hook. I haven’t seen any depiction of the stark reality of gun violence that beats this effort.  The video is accompanied by a new report analyzing the nearly 100 school shootings that have occurred since Newtown, and is an updated version of the report on school shootings originally published earlier this year.  Since this report, like the previous version, will no doubt come in for the usual slash-and-burn hysterics of the pro-gun crowd, I thought I would get my licks in first. So here goes.

The report is built on public (i.e., media) reports of school shootings defined as a gun being discharged within a school building or the campus around the facility.  This would include shootings that take place in school playgrounds, school parking lots and other areas that are considered school property but are not enclosed within the school building(s) proper.  Because it is based on media reports by definition it is incomplete and therefore has to be considered as representing a smaller number than the actual shootings that take place on school property.

everytown logo                The report breaks down shootings between K-12 institutions and colleges/universities, noting that the number of shootings that occurred in the two environments was roughly the same, with 49 shootings in K-12 and 46 in colleges and universities.  But while there were 18 shootings resulting in at least one injury on a college campus, as opposed to only 14 shootings that caused injuries suffered in K-12 institutions, the lower grades were much more deadly with 15 K-12 schools being the scene of gun homicides, whereas gun deaths occurred at only 8 college locations.

When Everytown’s previous report was issued in June, the pro-gun apologists immediately found all sorts of “inconsistencies” and “exaggerations” about the degree of danger posed by guns being used in and around educational institutions.  The most bizarre statement came from a right-wing blogger named Charles Johnson who determined that the numbers were overstated because a “gang” shooting that took place on school property, like a playground, was not actually a school shooting per se, but was just a random act of violence that happened to take place on school property. But the fact is that most acts of violence are random; they take place between individuals who knew each other before the violence occurred and break out because one party or the other decides to escalate a dispute from a verbal to a physical altercation.

It really doesn’t change things because someone decides to bring a gun onto school property who doesn’t happen to attend that school.  After all, Adam Lanza wasn’t a student at Sandy Hook Elementary when he opened fire on December 14, 2012.  But what differentiated him from many school shooters was his age; i.e., the most difficult aspect of the Everytown report is the age breakdown of the shooters in the K-12 schools.  While 60% were 17 years old or above, 40% were 16 years old or younger, with 3 shooters being 12 and one unbelievably age five.  How in God’s name does a five-year-old tote a gun to school and then shoot it?  For that matter, what can you say about twelve year old kids with live guns?

Earlier this year one of the so-called NRA commentators, Billy Johnson, posted a video in which he argued that teaching gun competency in school was as important as learning how to read and do math.  It’s easy to dismiss such dopey rhetoric as pandering to the fringe of the pro-gun crowd. If the best the pro-gun community can come up with is to quibble over whether or not this shootings took place during the school day or that shooting involved students from a particular school, then they are making it clear that a serious and sober discussion about school violence is beyond their abilities or concern.


Breitbart Does What It usually Does About Guns – Gets It Wrong.

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I don’t usually waste anyone’s time with reactions to editorials or other commentary on the gun business because everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.  But as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, “we are all entitled to our own opinion but not our own facts.”  And every once in a while someone published an opinion that is so at variance with the facts about guns that I feel it almost to be a civic duty to set the facts straight. This is the case with an editorial published in the Brietbart News calling for the Republican-led Senate to repeal the “burdensome and frivolous” gun control law of 1968 which, according to the editorial’s author, prevents Americans from going to other states, purchasing a handgun and returning with the gun to the state in which they live.

According to the author, A.W. Hawkins, the 1968 Gun Control Act is a “burdensome and unnecessary” law because while at allows residents o one state to travel to another state to purchase a rifle, it prohibits the same kind of transaction as regards handguns.  The author goes on to state that, “the arbitrary nature of the ban is evident in the fact that by law, a law-abiding citizen from one state can walk into a retail store and buy an AR-15, AK-47, or shotgun in another state.”  Not only does this rob consumers of the opportunity to support a “national” consumer market for small arms, but is an example of a “freedom-crushing law” that the Republican majority was elected to remove or change.

control cartoon                Let me break the news gently to Mr. Hawkins.  The prohibition on interstate sales of handguns was not the handiwork of the Gun Control Act of 1968, it was codified in the National Firearms Act of 1938, which amended and extended provisions of the original National Firearms Act of 1934.  The latter statute was passed to control the transfer and sale of automatic weapons, like the so-called ‘Tommy Gun’ that was used by the Capone mob and other gangsters during the Prohibition era, and then became props in all those Hollywood shoot-‘em-ups about Ma Barker, Alvin Karpis and Pretty Boy Floyd.

The 1938 National Firearms Act made it illegal for guns to move across state lines unless they were shipped from one gun dealer to another, a prohibition that covered all firearms and, for the first time required such dealers to acquire a license for interstate traffic in guns from the Treasury Department for the grand total of one dollar per year.  The 1938 law also for the first time created certain categories of “prohibited persons.” Like felons and fugitives, who could not own guns.  The only problem with the 1938 law was that it required dealers to record the sources of all firearms shipped to them from other states, but did not create any kind of regulatory process to verify or validate that dealers were actually maintaining such information.

The Gun Control Act of 1968 closed some of these loopholes by bringing all activities of gun dealers under the regulatory authority of the ATF.  For the first time, dealers not only had to maintain records of the sources of their inventory, but also were required to utilize the Form 4473 for recording detailed personal information about individuals to whom they transferred guns.  The dealer had to verify the gun recipient’s personal information by dint of a driver’s license or other standard type of ID.  Most important, the ATF could visit any dealer, inspect these records, and therefore have access to information about everyone who purchased a gun.

I’m not saying that GCA1968 is a perfect law.  Far from it.  But at the very least it does codify the idea that certain types of people simply should not be allowed to get access to guns.  The Brietbart editorialist isn’t against laws per se; he’s just doing what the pro-gun folks usually do whenever the discussion turns to guns -reduce the debate to the lowest, dumbest denominator because that’s the argument which the NRA can always win.



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