Do We Ever Talk About The Real Gun Violence?

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With all the talk and counter-talk this year about gun violence, I’m not sure that we have actually looked at the real issue at all.  And the real issue goes like this.

Last year there were roughly 11,000 homicides, of which approximately 80% involved the use of guns. There’s endless talk about how the US is much more violent, and really much more gun violent than any other advanced country, and we need to do something about it.  The NRA says that we need more armed citizens.  The other side says we need less guns.  Neither side can point to any definitive data to prove their point, but when did facts ever get in the way of opinions anyhow?

I want to talk about another kind of gun violence, the kind we don’t talk about at all.  For every person who was shot with a gun in a criminal affair, more than two people (roughly 18,000) shot themselves with guns.  That’s right. Gun suicide is more than twice as common as gun homicide, and I don’t notice anything in all the proposed bills floating through Congress that mentions this issue.

The one thing that everyone in Washington seems to agree on is that we need to add mental health records to NICS.  Now maybe that would prevent some crazy person from buying a gun and walking onto a college campus to shoot at a whole bunch of people, but it would likely have little impact on gun suicides.  In the majority of suicides, the victim actually saw a health professional within the last two weeks of their life.  That’s the real problem with suicide; it’s a very impulsive, very private kind of behavior.

The private nature of suicide and mental health in general makes it even more difficult to understand the extent of the problem.  Coroners and medical examiners are very careful when it comes to dealing with homicides, but suicides are usually family affairs, so even the cause of death is frequently stated as something else.  For a country that is obsessed with health, we draw a line when it comes to mental health and we prefer at best to discuss it rarely, or at worst to ignore it completely.

Precisely because it’s private and impulsive, a gun is the perfect tool to use if someone decides to end their life.  You don’t have to find a rooftop that you can get to, you don’t have to figure out how to tie a good knot around your neck, you don’t have to cram a fistful of pills down your throat.  No wonder that guns are successful in 95% of the times they are used as a life-ending device, whereas hangings work only 50% of the time and more than 90% of pill overdoses result in a quick trip to the local hospital to have your stomach pumped out.

The NRA has gone off the deep end with this bizarre attempt to criminalize discussions between physicians and patients about the ownership of guns.  When a patient tells a physician that he is feeling depressed, the doctor always asks whether the depression has provoked life-ending thoughts.  And if the patient responds in the affirmative, how can the physician or other medical professional then not ask if the patient has access to a gun?  If anyone reads this last paragraph and feels obliged to respond with the obligatory defense of the 2nd Amendment, do me and the other readers a favor and don’t waste our time.

I agree with the NRA that people who use guns to commit crimes need to be held fully accountable for their behavior and for the damages caused by the gun.  But people who use guns to kill themselves can’t be held responsible because if they were able to think rationally, they wouldn‘t try to kill themselves in the first place.  If we need a national strategy to deal with gun violence, it’s a strategy to deal with suicide, and that’s a discussion that hasn’t yet occurred.

 

Want To Stop Gun Violence? Here’s My Plan

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There’s been an unending debate about how to curb gun violence so that we won’t experience more massacres like Sandy Hook.  Whether it’s expanding background checks, or banning hi-cap magazines, or adding mental health data to NICS, there’s no end to the proposals, strategies and  solutions.

But let’s be honest, the truth is that what the gun control folks really want is to get rid of the guns.  Yea, yea, I know that everyone supports the 2nd Amendment.  But the 2nd Amendment’s guarantee of gun ownership is about as important to Michael Bloomberg as the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom is to an atheist.  Not that Bloomberg with his billions or Obama with his press conferences have been able to accomplish anything.  But Mike the Gun Guy has a way they could get rid of all the guns without spending another dollar on campaign contributions or infringing on the 2nd Amendment at all.

Take a look at the monthly NICS totals published by the FBI.  The highest monthly number of NICS background checks ever recorded since the system went live in 1998 was December, 2012, when the FBI phone bank received 2,783,765 calls.  The previous month, November, was the first month that the system ever logged more than 2 million calls. Remember what happened in November, 2012?  Someone named Obama got re-elected.  Recall the date of Sandy Hook?  December 16.

Within a six-week period the most liberal, anti-gun President got to sleep in the White House for another four years, and then a mass killing took place that sparked immediate calls for more gun control.  From January 1 until March 31, NICS received another 7 million background check requests, and from November, 2012 through March 2013, total NICS calls almost hit 12 million. No wonder Smith & Wesson announced record revenues for the quarter ending April 30.

But a funny thing began to happen as the gun industry marched along. In May, following the defeat of Manchin-Toomey and other gun control schemes, NICS checks fell to 1,435,917 and in June dropped even further to 1,281,351. The June figure was the lowest since July 2011, and from what I hear and what I see in my shop, the figure for July will be lower still. In other words, since the high-point of last December, the drop is more than fifty percent!  Please don’t post a comment about how NICS numbers can’t be trusted because so many guns can be sold without a background check.  NICS obviously doesn’t cover all transactions, but it does cover virtually every new gun sold for the first time.  So the NICS number may not be absolutely correct, but it’s a very good gauge for understanding sales trends in the gun industry.

If the decline in NICS continues, the FBI will conduct less than a million monthly background checks within the next several months, and by year’s end we could be back down to the pre-9/11 days of George W. Bush.  Boom and bust is typical of the gun industry because spikes in sales are invariably the result of gun owners believing they won’t be able to buy more guns, rather than consumers entering the gun market for the first time.  Surveys seem to indicate that the number of households with guns keeps declining, while the number of guns owned by Americans keeps increasing.  Get it?

Gun sales have doubled from 2006 to 2012, but what the gun control crew should do to reduce the number of guns coming onto the market is to keep their mouths shut.  No more Dianne Feinstein press conferences, no more Michael Bloomberg “straw sales” videos, no more Joe Biden playing Joe Biden.  If gun owners stop worrying about “attacks” on the 2nd Amendment, they’ll stop buying guns.  Less guns out there, less guns get into the wrong hands.  The market can be a much more efficient way to regulate gun behavior than any government plan.

Where Do The Numbers Come From In The Gun Control Debate?

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Have you noticed how each side in the current argument about guns has a favorite statistic that they like to throw around?  For the NRA it’s the 2.5 million crimes that didn’t occur last year because more and more people use a gun to deter a crime.  For the President and his supporters it’s the 40% of all gun transfers that take place without a background check.  The NRA claims that their number “proves” that we would all be safer if everyone walked around with a gun.  The gun-control crowd says that their number “proves” that we need to expand background checks so that guns won’t end up in the wrong hands.  Does anyone know where these numbers come from?  Here’s the answer.

The NRA number comes from a telephone survey conducted by the criminologist Gary Kleck in 1994.  As for Obama, his number also comes from a 1994 telephone survey conducted by the sociologist Philip Cook.  Note that 1994 was the last time we had a national debate on guns that ended with passage of both Brady and the assault weapons ban.  Twenty years later we have a new debate but we’re using the same old numbers.  But it’s not that the numbers are old; they are flawed.

Let’s take Kleck’s numbers first.  No respondent was asked to prove that the incident could actually be independently verified.  Although 60% said the incident had “come to the attention of the police,” they were not asked whether it had actually been reported to the police or, for that matter, to anyone else.  Kleck’s explanation for this extraordinary lapse in methodology was that he assumed that many of the respondents might have been walking around either with guns they weren’t supposed to be carrying or were carrying guns in places where such behavior was prohibited.  But the survey didn’t seek to determine that issue either.  Did the people who claimed they used a gun to deter a crime really know what they were talking about?  Can we trust anyone to accurately describe an event without having some way of independently verifying  the truth of what they said? It’s a no-brainer to verify the results of a political poll.  Just wait for the election and then count the votes. But how do you verify something like whether someone really knew that a crime was going to take place?  Especially when the whole point is that the crime didn’t take place.

The methodology of Cook’s survey is not only as flawed as Kleck’s, but might even be worse. Cook asked his respondents if they knew how they acquired their weapon, and 60 percent said they “believed” they got it from a “licensed” dealer.  They ‘believed.’  Then the Department of Justice took this number and assumed that the other 40 percent who admitted to acquiring guns in this survey must have gotten them from someone else.  And this is the 40 percent who, twenty years later, still get their hands on guns without undergoing a background check.

By the way, there were no background checks in 1994.  The NICS system only became operational in 1995.  So nobody underwent a background check in 1994 and if Obama, Bloomberg and Manchin want to base their campaign for expanded background checks on the DOJ survey, they should be consistent and say that the rate of gun transfers without background checks today is 100 percent.  Because that was the rate in 1994.

Last but not least: Kleck’s survey was based on interviews with 225 people; Cook contacted 248.  A national political argument that has consumed the attention of the government, the media and God knows how many advocacy groups is based on discussions with less than 500 people.  Should we be at all surprised that we never found any WMDs in Iraq?

The Gun Debate: Who’s Really Talking?

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The last time we engaged in a gun debate that was as loud and time-consuming as what erupted after Sandy Hook was when the assault-weapons ban was enacted in 1994.  But there was no internet in 1994 so it’s impossible to compare what happened then to what is going on now.  The fact that a large number of “grass roots” gun control organizations have suddenly sprung into existence doesn’t necessarily mean that the country is more or less supportive of gun restrictions versus gun rights than it was twenty years ago.  There’s simply no way to compare the noise levels from one communication environment to the other.

What we can compare is the volume of pro-gun versus anti-gun sentiment through an analysis of social media to get some idea of which side might be outshouting the other.  Everybody has a Facebook page these days and people who “like” a particular page can receive content each time the page is updated or changed. The NRA has 2,463,000 ‘likes,’ the Sandy Hook Promise organization has 60,000. Glock’s Facebook page is liked by 567,000, Mayor Bloomberg with his billions has found some way to register a whopping 18,000,  Remington has 870,000 and the Brady Campaign, which has been around since before the 1994 debate, has amassed a grand total of 57,000.  If we use Facebook to estimate grass-roots support for pro versus anti-gun positions, the gun folks outnumber their opponents by 10 to 1.

The Facebook connections made by gun people are so much higher than the anti-gun Facebook connections that we appear to be playing in different arenas. Perhaps we are. What usually goes unmentioned when we talk about guns is understanding the real motivation of gun owners.  Maybe they are hunters, maybe they are target shooters, or maybe they really believe that a gun will protect them from crime.  But in most cases gun owners are hobbyists and their hobby is guns.  They think about guns, they buy guns, they trade guns.  Don’t believe me?  Walk around a gun show and you could be walking around a ham radio show, a model train show, or a computer show.

Guns are a lot more important to people who own them than to people who don’t.  That’s why people who don’t own guns join gun control Facebook pages in much smaller numbers because the passion and the interest just isn’t there.  They’ll tell a telephone pollster that they support background checks, but they’re not going to lose any sleep if the law isn’t changed.  The fact that some young kids get murdered by a “nut” who gets his hands on a gun just doesn’t support the idea that a lawful hobby should all of a sudden become more difficult to pursue.

In the age of digital communication it doesn’t take much to secure a presence in the public debate.  All you need is a URL, a website, Facebook page and Twitter account and you’re good to go. An organization called Moms Rising recently brought 5 groups together on their blog to issue statements about gun violence, including the Children’s Defense Fund whose President, Marian Wright Edelman, is one of my personal heroes.  Together the Facebook pages of these 5 groups total slightly more than 100,000 supporters and this number probably represents numerous duplicates. The NRA is just shy of 2.5 million.  That’s a joke, and not a funny joke.

People who want to see less gun violence aren’t going to get there by reminding gun owners to lock away their guns.  It’s not about websites or t-shirts or leading a seminar at the Aspen Institute.  It’s the tough, hard job of going into one inner-city classroom again and again to talk to 30 kids about staying away from guns.  I’m going to start doing it in September and if I can save one life by making these 30 kids think about gun violence every time I stand in front of the class, then I’ve done something that all the talk, all the organizational activity and all the world’s great opinion-makers and influencers have been unable to do.

Is the NRA’s Opposition to Background Checks about the Constitution – or About something Else?

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It looks like we may be headed towards Round 2 of the gun control fight in Washington, in which case the NRA will begin kicking and screaming again about how expanding the National Instant Criminal Background Check system (NCIS) will “weaken” the Second Amendment and ultimately lead to the confiscation of guns. But is the argument really about “constitutional rights”? Or is the real argument about something else?

Don’t forget that every single gun entering the consumer market for the first time is sold by a federally-licensed dealer to a consumer and every one of these transactions requires a NICS background check. Whether the dealer is sitting behind the counter in a retail store, or sitting behind a table at a gun show, or sitting on the porch of his home, he/she must still dial 877-324-6427 and get a “proceed” from the very efficient NICS examiner before Joe or Jane Customer walks away with the gun. After that, God only knows what happens to the gun, but every first transaction is registered and approved.

The 156 million calls logged by the NICS came from all 50 states, but just under 50 percent of FBI background checks covered residents in just 16 Southern and border states: MD, VA, WV, NC, SC, TN, KY, GA, FL, LA, Al, MS, TX, OK, MO and AR. These states have a combined population of 114 million. In other words, states that contain less than one-third of the nation’s population bought half of the guns manufactured and sold since 1998.

Incidentally, the ratio of population to NICS calls actually underestimates the number of guns because when I or any other dealer calls NICS we do not tell them how many guns are actually being purchased by the customer. The NICS data doesn’t reflect the fact that if someone walks into my gun shop and purchases one gun, or two guns, or ten guns, I still make only a single NICS call and do not disclose the number of guns being transferred since NICS is verifying background information on the buyer, not on the guns.

With the exception of Maryland, which lies below the Mason-Dixon line but is clearly a “northern” state, the remaining 15 states that gobble up half the new guns sold each year also have the loosest gun controls at the state level. The word “loosest” is something of a misnomer, since the majority of these states, in fact, have no state gun regulations at all. None of them require locking devices on any guns; only one — Virginia — imposes any regulations on gun show sales; and only one — North Carolina — requires a gun permit issued prior to purchasing a handgun. It goes without saying that none of them mandate any legal requirements over private sales.

Of the remaining 34 states, there are 21 that have regulations covering either gun locks, gun shows or private transfers. Most of the other 13 states that impose no restrictions are Western states which, for the most part, account for a small percentage of national gun sales simply because these states don’t have many residents. Montana, for example, is one of three states in which the number of NICS checks between 1998 and 2012 exceeded the total number of residents, but Montana still doesn’t have one million people who call the state their home.

Common sense and practical experience tells us that when government regulates any consumer product, either the price goes up or the supply goes down, or both. Fighting against regulations that would be imposed on the gun owners of all 50 states might appear to be a Constitutional issue, but it’s a marketing strategy as well. The gun industry and its allies want to push as many guns as possible into parts of the country where government regulation won’t dampen sales. The Second Amendment not only protects the rights of individuals to own guns, it also protects the rights of manufacturers to make more guns. Does laissez-faire trump gun control? If the Manchin-Toomey bill is resurrected, we’ll soon find out.

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