Does The ATF Know How To Regulate Guns? Maybe Yes, Maybe No

When it was revealed in December, 2010 that U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed with a gun that had been “walked” out of an Arizona gun shop as part of an ATF-managed gun-running operation called Fast and Furious, to put it politely, all hell broke loose.  Guns ‘walk’ out of a gun store, when someone has been allowed to commit a “straw” purchase with the knowledge and approval of law enforcement, in this case, the ATF.  A straw purchase is a serious federal felony because someone who can pass the required background check is, in fact, buying the gun for someone who can’t.  Straw sales are considered the primary method by which guns get into the wrong hands and the ATF conducts random inspections of licensed dealers in order to identify such sales.

atf                The ATF has been responsible for regulating federally-licensed gun dealers since the passage of the Federal Firearms Act in 1938.  This law, for the first time required interstate gun transfers to be made via licensed dealers (the license cost a buck), and also required dealers to sell guns only to residents of their own state.  The law was strengthened by the Gun Control Act of 1968, which established categories of ‘prohibited’ persons (felons, fugitives, etc.) to whom guns could not be sold, required dealers to verify the identity of the purchaser and to retain records of each sale.  The ATF, which was a small operation within Internal Revenue Service under the Department of the Treasury, was given authority and additional resources to conduct gun-shop inspections to make sure that dealers were following the law.

The role of the ATF expanded again with the passage of the Brady bill in 1994.  This law created the instant background check system which allows the FBI to examine court records of anyone before the public purchase of a gun.  The law requires dealers not only to verify the identification of the purchaser, but also to withhold delivery of the gun if the FBI, based on background check results indicates that the sale should not go through.  If a dealer allows purchases to be consummated without a background check, or does not exercise diligence in verifying the identity of the buyer, once again ATF gets into the act.

If the current argument over expanding background checks to all gun transfers ends up in the elimination of private sales, the result will be a further widening of the firearm regulatory infrastructure and a greater degree of authority vested in the ATF.  And because the debate over background checks has focused entirely on whether such checks will actually reduce crime, the issue of fixing the regulatory system has been largely ignored.  Some Republicans whine that the system isn’t working because the ATF’s activities result in just a handful of gun prosecutions each year.  But the issue isn’t really whether the criminal enforcement of gun regulations should be stepped up.  After reading thousands of pages of government documents on Fast and Furious, I believe it may not be possible to simply fix a system that appears to be so screwed up.

The ATF encouraged gun dealers to make these Fast and Furious sales which, in every single case, required the dealer to violate federal regulatory laws that the ATF is supposed to enforce.  More than 2,000 weapons walked out of gun shops because the ATF believed this that busting an important gun-running operation would, for the first time, heighten ATF’s role and value in the federal law enforcement scheme of things.  ATF is brought in on all crimes that involve guns, but the dirty little secret is that picking up the gun counts very little, it’s all about catching and convicting the guy who used a gun to commit the crime.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against expanding background checks to cover private sales and I hope I-594 goes through next week.  But until the ATF’s role in federal law enforcement is clearly defined and understood, just giving them more gun transactions to regulate might create more problems than it solves.


What Do We Learn From Marysville?

After the massacre at Sandy Hook, Wayne LaPierre issued a public statement calling for armed guards in every school.  The way he put it was, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  This shameless and cynical attempt to build support for the gun industry by making people believe that the way to end gun violence was to give people the legal right to commit gun violence became the war-cry for the gun lobby, despite the fact that there has never been credible proof that armed citizens make America a safer place to live, to work, or to go to school.

Now I want to make one thing very clear before Ted Nugent and all the other super-patriots begin jumping up and down and calling Mike the Gun Guy an “enemy” of the beloved 2nd Amendment or worse.  There’s no credible proof that carrying guns around makes America a safer place, there’s also no credible proof that it does not.  In fact, there’s no credible proof of any connection between the behavior of law-abiding citizens who carry guns and the behavior of people who use guns either to shoot themselves or shoot anyone else.  Sorry, but coincidence isn’t causality and the fact that the violent crime rate is half as high as it was twenty years ago while the number of states that grant CCW permits has doubled isn’t, in and of itself, a proof of anything at all.

   Sen. Daniel Moynihan

Sen. Daniel Moynihan

As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “We are all entitled to our own opinions, but we aren’t entitled to our own facts.”  I can’t think of another debate about public policy in which the two sides are so polarized in terms of opinions, but where there’s so little agreement about the facts.  At least when Republicans say we can solve the deficit by lowering taxes and Democrats argue for raising revenues, both sides agree that a deficit actually exists.  Red and Blue also disagree vehemently about immigration, but at least admit that something needs to be done.  In the case of guns, however, one side, the NRA side, doesn’t even believe that gun violence is a problem and, in fact, the NRA and its allies never use the term “gun violence” at all.

Which is why I find what happened in Marysville High School both a terrible and yet at the same time a remarkable event.  It was terrible, of course, because three young people lost their lives, others were badly wounded, scores more were traumatized beyond repair.  Even though it was more than fifty years ago, I remember my high school cafeteria as a place to relax, fool around and just have some innocent fun.  There isn’t a single kid in the Marysville lunchroom last week who will be able to sit there happily and playfully again.

On the other hand, the incident in Marysville was also remarkable for how it came to an end.  Apparently, a first-year teacher, Megan Silberberger, heard the shots, ran into the cafeteria, walked right up to Jaylen Fryberg and grabbed his arm as he was attempting to reload the gun.  It’s not clear at what point Fryberg shot himself with the gun, but what is clear is that an unarmed teacher, without any concern for her own safety, may have ended this episode before the carnage became much worse.

I suspect plans are being discussed to bring Ms. Silberberger to DC for visits at the White House and Capitol Hill.  But after I finish this commentary I’m going to write a letter to Wayne LaPierre and suggest that the NRA invite this courageous young woman to stop by their headquarters as well.  The truth is that buying and sticking a gun in your pocket may keep gun sales on the rise, but you don’t need a gun to try and prevent harm. All you need is what the current gun debate seems to be lacking, which is some common sense.

Do The CDC Numbers On Gun Violence Tell Us What We Think They Tell Us? I’m Not So Sure.

The gun control community takes as a given the idea that there’s a correlation between more gun control laws and lower rates of gun violence.  And while we all assume that most people obey laws, and therefore if we pass a law prohibiting or controlling a particular kind of behavior (such as how people use guns), the law will have its desired effect.  Except in the case of gun violence I’m not so sure that this is correct, nor am I sure that the data which is proffered up to justify this argument says what the gun control folks believe it says.  Case in point:  a new report issued by the Violence Policy Center that finds higher rates of gun violence in states with fewer gun control laws.

The report, actually a press release, is based on the 2012 mortality data issued by the CDC and available for viewing/analysis online.  The CDC breaks down injuries by how they occurred, on both a regional and a state-by-state basis.  Which means you can see how many guns were used in homicides, suicides and plain old accidents, divide these numbers by each state or region’s population and – voila! – you have the data used by the VPC.

cdc logoWhen I used the CDC data to calculate gun violence, the raw numbers agreed with the numbers published by the VPC, but I found myself  asking questions that simply don’t fit into the neat more laws = less gun violence paradigm that the VPC and other gun control advocates firmly believe.  For example, the VPC correctly notes that overall gun deaths increased from 2011 to 2012.  But gun accidents declined a tiny bit, while homicides and suicides both moved slightly up.  The more alarming news is that gun suicides account for nearly two-thirds of all gun deaths, a percentage that has been steadily climbing each year as, until recently, gun homicides have come down.

One of the major reasons for the great distance between the two sides in the gun violence debate is that one side, the NRA side, refuses to admit that suicide has anything to do with gun violence at all.  Suicide is never mentioned in the phony safety campaigns they run in conjunction with the NSSF, and they are hard at work trying to gag physicians who want to talk to their patients about guns, even when patients exhibit obvious symptoms of mental distress.  But the reason why states like Wyoming and Montana rank in the top 6 states for gun violence has nothing to do with homicide, it’s a function of elevated suicide rates which are acts of gun violence that have little, if anything to do with gun control laws at all.  Does the fact that gun suicide rates in the Northeast are lowest of any region reflect stricter legal controls over guns?  Or does it say something about disparities in mental health treatment between various sections of the United States?

I’m also not sure that using state-level gun violence rates and then tying these rates to strict or lax gun laws gets us to where we want to be, namely, a society which experiences less gun violence.  For example, my state – Massachusetts – has the lowest rate of gun violence of all 50 states, and it is known as a state with fairly strong gun control laws.  But the city of Springfield recently recorded its 14th gun homicide for 2014, and if the killing continues at that pace for the remainder of the year, the city will end up with an annual gun homicide rate of about 16 per 100,000, higher than 44 of the 50 states.

Don’t get me wrong.  I support the efforts of the VPC and other like-minded folks to find ways to curb the awful carnage created by guns.  But if we are going to look for lawful solutions to this or any other problem we have to be sure that we really understand the problem that the law will try to correct.  In the case of gun violence, the problem is not as simple or obvious as it seems.

Here Come The Real Good Guys To Protect Us From Gun Violence.

Yesterday NPR put out a story, “Lawyers Band Together To Fight Gun Violence” based on an interview with Cy Vance, Jr., and Mike Feuer.  Except these guys aren’t just lawyers.  They happen to be the prosecutors of the two largest cities in the United States, Los Angeles and New York.  Next week they are meeting in Atlanta with prosecutors from such other major cities as Boston, Miami, Seattle, Detroit and Houston to discuss strategies that all these cities and others can adopt to deal with gun violence.

If anyone thinks that such an event isn’t a major step forward in dealing with the 11,000+ gun homicides, 120,000+ gun robberies and 140,000+ gun assaults that occur each year, they better think again.  Most of the gun violence that makes America the numero uno advanced country for gun crimes occurs in the cities and metro areas whose top crime-fighters will be at this conference.  In a word, this is serious sh-t.

In their unending effort to keep Americans from passing gun control legislation, the NRA goes out of its way to cultivate good relations with law enforcement officials and cops.  Except with one or two exceptions (the Detroit Police Chief, for example), this usually takes the form of getting sheriffs from rural and small-town jurisdictions to make public statements about the uselessness of gun control.  Invariably, these sheriffs are Republicans, they are aligned with pro-gun national politicians and organizations in their own states and their opposition to anti-gun measures are no less politically-driven than their opposition to any other piece of the Democratic party line.

But when we talk about big-city prosecutors, we’re talking about a different breed of cat. These folks don’t develop anti-crime agendas at the ballot box, their success or failure is based on keeping their cities safe.  And none of these prosecutors buy into the NRA nonsense that giving everyone a concealed-carry permit will get their job done.  They know from long experience that public safety is always based on solid laws, aggressive enforcement and community support.  It’s a triad that has been used again and again for all sorts of law enforcement concerns, and there’s really no room in it for debates about whether taking away my hi-cap gun magazine robs me of my Constitutional rights.

gun crime               The last time there was a coordinated, national effort by law enforcement to deal with gun violence grew out of the Clinton crime bill passed in 1994.  Nobody has yet been able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the law was responsible for a 40% drop in gun homicides between 1994 and 1999, but it sure wasn’t because all of a sudden all the good guys were walking around armed with a gun.

Over the last fifteen years, beginning in 1999, the level of gun violence hasn’t gone up but it sure hasn’t gone down.  And the number and severity of multiple shootings has certainly increased, no matter what NRA sycophants like John Lott would otherwise like to pretend.  Even New York City, which saw the greatest drop in gun crime of any major urban center under Mayor Mike, has experienced a slight increase in shootings over the past year.

The appearance of a national effort by prosecutors to develop coordinated gun violence strategies has been paralleled by the recent emergence of another national organization, the National Network to Combat Gun Violence, representing city-level legislators from such cities as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, Dallas, Seattle, Baltimore, Albany, Berkeley, Jersey City, Madison, Yonkers, Newark, Hoboken, White Plains, Richmond, Mt. Vernon, Olympia and Indianapolis.

The NRA might want its membership to believe that if they walk around with guns in their pockets they constitute the front-line defense against violence and crime.  But the truth is that the real good guys (and gals) are the people who are coming together at the legal, legislative and grass-roots levels to develop common-sense solutions to gun violence and gun crimes.

Physicians Need To Stop Talking Just To Each Other About Guns

Gun owners, particularly the more activist gun owners, tend to be prolific bloggers.  Partly this is because they often believe themselves to be an “oppressed minority,” whose vies on guns aren’t reliably reported by the media; partly because guns still aren’t a “mainstream” item in many areas which prompts gunnies to create their own, alternate communication channels.  You can catch a flavor of this mentality in Brian Patrick’s The National Rifle Association and the Media, a book whose arguments I don’t necessarily agree with, but it nevertheless gives some good  insights into the gun-owning frame of mind.

I make a point of reading several gun blogs every day to keep up with what the “other side” has to say.  Many of the blogs are basically advertising vehicles whose content is comprised mainly of cut-and-paste entries from other blogs or sites.  My personal favorite is CalGuns, which seems to attract a fairly literate audience that not only refrain from much of the in-your-face rhetoric that characterizes so much of the current gun discussion (thanks to Ted Nugent, et. al.) but also gives space to interesting and informed questions that do need to be confronted in the gun debate.

docs versus glocks                For me and many of the readers of my blog, a major issue involves the role of physicians in dealing with the violence caused by guns.  I don’t really think there’s any connection between the NRA’s opposition to Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General and the possible outbreak of Ebola in the United States.  But I do believe that a pernicious trend exists to prohibit medical inquiries about gun ownership now that the Florida gag law has appeared in Missouri and will surely spread beyond.  It’s pernicious first of all because it fosters a wholly uninformed, stupid and reactionary view of the role of physicians in their everyday work, and it’s also pernicious because it is the foundation of a cynical marketing strategy to make consumers believe that guns are just another, all-American way to have fun.  I beg to differ with the NSSF, but the AR-15 just isn’t the Millennial version of the Daisy Red Ryder and we shouldn’t be creating a generation that will hope to find one on Christmas Day sitting under the tree.

In that respect the CalGuns blog posted an interesting thread yesterday that read: “My sister took my niece to the doctor the other day and they asked her if there are firearms in the house. Is that legal in California?”  The writer went on to reference the Florida gag law which, if nothing else, shows that he has some awareness of events beyond himself, and most of the responses he received were also fairly cogent and informed.  One writer differentiated between “legal” as opposed to “appropriate,” another suggested that the patient ask the physician “in a nice manner” why the question was being asked, a third poster stated that he would be concerned that perhaps the doctor suspected “foul play.”

These comments demonstrate to me that there are lots of gun owners who simply don’t understand the reasons why, medically speaking, physicians need to ask patients about access to guns.  And it doesn’t work to simply explain this lack of understanding because of the NRA’s demonizing of physicians over the past twenty years.  It seems to me that physicians, medical organizations and the medical establishment in general need to do a better job of explaining their role and responsibilities in dealing with the violence or potential violence caused by guns.  When the American Academy of Pediatrics publishes a statement about gun violence on their website, do they ask themselves whether the commentary will be picked by the readers of CalGuns?  As long as physicians only talk to other physicians about gun violence the NRA will own the argument about physicians and guns.

The Virus Is Spreading And I’m Not Talking About Ebola

Last month the Missouri legislature passed a new gun law that was essentially a rewrite of a bill vetoed by Governor Jay Nixon.  Missouri has been in the forefront of easing restrictions on gun ownership and this law continues that trend.  In 2007 a decades-old law that required state residents to apply for police permits to purchase handguns was overturned, and the result was an immediate spike in gun homicides.  The new law drops the minimum age for concealed-carry from 21 to 19, allows teachers to bring concealed weapons into schools, and prohibits towns, counties or other local jurisdictions from promulgating gun laws that conflict in any way with state statutes.

According to the law’s sponsor, Republican Senator Will Kraus, the law was designed to protect the rights of gun owners who had “earned” concealed-carry privileges by dint of voting or military service.  Could this guy have a statement that dumb on the floor of the State Senate?  Obviously he did, and he went on to say that a concealed-carry license also gives state residents the right to carry a weapon openly, again because they had “earned’ this right by dint of registering to vote.

docs versus glocks                If the Missouri State Legislature wants to make it easier for state residents to pretend they can keep everyone safe by walking around with a gun, I really don’t care.  Despite the continued mouthings of John Lott and other NRA sycophants, there is simply no credible evidence which proves that legal gun ownership reduces crime.  The good news about concealed-carry is that most people who have a CCW permit actually don’t bother to walk around with a gun, and while CCW on the one hand doesn’t lead to less crime, it also doesn’t seem to spark any great increase in crime on the other.

But what I am concerned about is another part of the law which makes Missouri the second state to gag physicians who try to ask patients about their ownership of guns.  Here’s what the law says: “No health care professional shall be required by law to inquire whether a patient owns or has access to a firearm.”  It then goes on to prohibit physicians from noting gun ownership in a patient  records or disclosing the identity of a gun owner to “any government entity” unless the physician is ordered to disclose such information via court order, blah, blah, blah. The final clause of this section of the law contains the usual bromide about how gun ownership can be discussed if, in the physician’s professional judgement, the patient’s access to a gun might be of medical concern.  But make no mistake about it: Missouri, like Florida, has now instituted a gag order against physicians talking to patients about guns.

What really concerns me about this attack on physicians is not the fact that it has taken place.  Frankly, once those two idiots on the 11th Federal Circuit upheld the Florida law, I assumed that it would be replicated in state after state.  The bigger problem is that I learned about Missouri closing down physician inquiry from reading the text of the Missouri law itself.  When the Florida law was first passed, the Brady Campaign, the American Academy of Pediatrics and a host of other medical groups not only went immediately to court, but kept up a steady drumbeat about the issue and even now are asking that the 11th Circuit’s bizarre decision be overturned.  In the case of Missouri, nobody seems to have noticed that the gag-MD virus has spread.

The real reason that the gunnies want to push physicians out of the discussion about gun violence is not because physicians are opposed to guns.  It’s because the NRA and its allies want to disconnect gun ownership from violence to make their products more acceptable, more enjoyable, more normal for every dad and mom.  After all, we agree that violence is abnormal but guns don’t pose any threat at all.  Isn’t that right, doc?


Do Guns Protect Us From Crime? Here’s A Serious Study That Says No.

Sooner or later someone is going to realize that most of what the NRA claims to be the value of gun ownership simply isn’t true.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love guns, bought my first real gun when I was twelve years old and have owned hundreds ever since.  But to me guns are a hobby, like model trains and toy soldiers, and I recoil in anger and disgust whenever the gun lobby tries to invest some kind of sacred value in their existence or use.  And one of the biggest lies about gun ownership that is spun again and again is the idea that guns are an effective way to protect us against crime.

This nonsense first started making the rounds when a criminologist, Gary Kleck, published a paper in 1994 which claimed that Americans used guns several million times each year to prevent what would otherwise have been crimes. He didn’t say that gun owners shot their guns at would-be criminals; he said that gun owners let a potential criminal know that they were going up against someone with a gun.  In fact, not a single person (less than 240 in a national survey) who claimed that they used a gun in this way could prove that their account of what happened was actually true.  Not a single incident was reported to police or verified by anyone else.  And in more than half the so-called defensive gun uses (DGUs) it turned out that the so-called criminal had neither said nor done anything that indicated criminal intent or any other kind of intent.  How did the gun owner who committed the DGU know that he was preventing a crime from taking place?  He didn’t.

John Lott

John Lott

Kleck’s work was shortly supported by another research hack named John Lott whose data that he used to “prove” that concealed-carry permits resulted in less crime turned out to be data that, to be polite, perhaps didn’t exist at all.  When he was asked to produce his data by the National Academy of Sciences he couldn’t; when he produced what he claimed was “similar” data the National Academy’s analysts couldn’t replicate his findings at all. When other scholars took his substitute data and used a different methodology, the crime rates that Lott said went down actually went up.

Don’t think for one second that the inability of either Kleck or Lott to validate their research to an even minimal degree has stopped the gun lobby from promoting the idea that guns protect us from crime or has prevented the two erstwhile scholars from finding receptive audiences for continued showcasing of their work.  Kleck routinely appears in courtrooms giving depositions and expert testimony on behalf of the NRA; Lott promotes himself endlessly and shamelessly on Fox and various right-wing blogs.

Now along comes a serious scholar named Michael Siegel who continues to provide us with peer-reviewed studies on gun violence which, to put It bluntly, shows the work of Kleck and Lott to be what it really is. In 2013, Siegel and his colleagues published a detailed article which found a significant correlation between gun ownership rates and gun homicides on a state-by-state basis.  Previously, the work of Hemenway and others had demonstrated a possible link between elevated gun homicides and gun ownership on a national level; the research by Siegel and his team, focused on more state-level data, made the connection between guns and gun homicide much more specific and real.

The new study takes the state data on gun ownership and tests the correlation between gun ownership and whether the perpetrator and victim either knew each other or not.  It turns out that gun ownership did not really alter the amount of gun homicides involving people who didn’t know each other, but gun homicides were significantly higher in gun-owning households where the perpetrator and victim did.  Why didn’t the gun homicide rate decline between strangers if guns are such a good way of protecting us from crime?  Because the studies which claim this to be true aren’t studies at all; they are promotional campaigns to sell more guns.