How Much Does Gun Violence Cost? Mother Jones Has A New Number.

Economists and public health researchers have been trying to figure out the costs of gun violence for more than twenty years, and the latest estimate, just published in Mother Jones, puts the total tab at $229 billion. This isn’t the first time that attempts have been made to estimate gun violence costs; Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig published an entire book on the subject back in 2002, and they put the annual figure at $100 billion – surely the number couldn’t have more than doubled in the past 15 years,  particularly since the number of robberies, assaults and homicides have all declined from the earlier date.  In fact, the lead researcher for the Mother Jones piece, Ted Miller, said in 2010 that gun violence was costing the U.S. $170 billion, which means that somehow total costs have increased by 35% over the last five years.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not playing Monday-morning quarterback and casting aspersions or doubts on the research and analysis presented in Mother Jones.  Anyone who believes that gun violence isn’t a public health issue of major proportions might as well join Wayne-o, Chris Cox, Larry Keane and other professional gun delusionists in promoting the idea that guns don’t represent any risk at all.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a serious discussion among rational-minded folks about the ways in which we understand and frame the debate about guns.  The Mother Jones report is a serious contribution to that discussion and I’m responding to it on those terms.

conference program pic                The report breaks things down between direct and indirect costs, the former reflecting such expenses as medical care, policing, emergency services and penal  charges (courts and incarceration), the latter reflecting what the researchers call “less tangible” costs, such as lost income, quality of life impacts and labor replacement.  I would rather refer to these two categories by the qualitative value of the data, because most of the direct costs can be calculated from governmental budgets covering policing, medical care and penal institutions, whereas the indirect costs are estimates at best, and may or may not be based on any real numbers at all.  The direct costs of America’s annual gun carnage is estimated at less than 4% of the $229 billion total, of which incarceration accounted for 94% of the direct cost total for homicides, but only a fraction of that amount for each aggravated assault.  Miller and his associates claim that incarceration costs $414,000 per homicide; Cook and Ludwig set the cost at $244,000.  Could this number have nearly doubled in 15 years?  The overall gun violence costs appear to have more than doubled during the same period, so why not?

Moving from direct to indirect costs presents other types of data issues which I’m not sure are discussed with the sensitivity and acuity which they deserve.  The biggest one to me is the attempt to calculate the economic value of a human life which is based primarily on estimates of what that person would have earned had they lived out a normal life term.  And even though the report calculates the number to be significantly lower than estimates from various government agencies, any such estimate is based on assumptions about the economy’s long-term performance that may or may not be true. Those of us who watched out 401Ks shrivel in 2007-2008 or got called into the boss’s office at 4 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, know how dangerous it is to attempt to predict any degree of financial or economic performance out beyond the next couple of months.

When it comes to gun violence there’s a moral imperative – thou shalt not kill – which transcends any discussion about numbers even though the gun industry evidently feels that it doesn’t apply to them.  The cautions above should not detract at all from the value of this report which reminds us again that the real cost of gun violence, the cost to our humanity and decency, remains to be solved.


Is Gun Suicide A Form Of Gun Violence? You Betcha.

Gun suicide accounts for 2/3 of fatal gun violence every year.  Until recently I have always been somewhat uncomfortable lumping suicide and homicide together, if only because the nature of the event is so different, the ownership and access to the weapon is so different, hence one assumes that the mitigation strategies should be different. But following discussions with the expert suicide researchers at Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center and a review of peer-reviewed literature, I am persuaded that gun suicide is not only a fundamental gun violence problem, but understanding and responding to it might provide a map for mitigating gun homicides and gun assaults as well.

suicide foto               Gun suicides and gun homicides intersect In two basic ways: the lethality of the weapon and the motives and behavior of the shooter leading up to the incident itself.  As to the former, guns used in suicides result in a success rate of 95%.  No other suicide effort is half as effective in the final result.  As for homicide, obviously the “success” rate is only about 10%, but there is no other serious injury which comes close to generating the costs and trauma that results from being wounded with a gun.

As to behavior, the degree to which impulse governs the actions of everyone who shoots themselves or others with a gun should not be overlooked.  Less than 20% of all homicides occur during the commission of another, serious crime.  Most gun homicides grow out of a history of disputes between individuals who know each other and the incidence of domestic abuse in homicides where the victims are women is virtually 100%.  I recently discussed a report from the Violence Policy Center in which I noted that a random search of gun homicides committed by CCW-holders showed that virtually all of them grew out of arguments and fights, usually aggravated by too much to drink. Is there really a great difference between the guy who gets sick and tired of fighting with himself or sick and tired of arguing with his wife and reaches for his gun?  I don’t think so, and the research on suicide and homicide tends to bear me out.

What about mitigating strategies for both types of fatalities involving guns?  An article on suicide prevention among Israeli soldiers caught my eye because Israel is often touted by the pro-gun community as the model for giving civilians full access to guns with a consequent low rate of violent crime.  But the policy of allowing soldiers to keep their guns with them on weekend leave also resulted in an alarmingly high rate of suicide among these soldiers, which dropped by nearly 40% when soldiers had to leave their guns secured at their base while spending weekends at home.  Anyone who thinks there’s no connection between suicide and gun access needs to look honestly at what happened in Israel before and after access to guns was denied.

The pro-gun folks would like to believe that gun fatalities have nothing to do with guns and are all about crime.  There’s a simple logic to that argument except for the fact that every single gun involved in a criminal event first started out as a legal gun.  For that matter, most of the guns in suicides either were legally owned by the suicide victim or belonged to another family member who legally purchased the gun.

The usual response from the gun-safety community is to push for an expansion of CAP laws, and clearly such laws do have a mitigating effect when it comes to keeping kids away from guns.  But let me break the news to you gently – the big problem with such laws is that the only way that someone can use a gun is to unlock where the gun is stored or unlock the gun itself.  And the problem we face with both gun suicides and gun homicides is figuring out how to spot the impulsive, destructive behavior of certain people before they get their hands on a gun.


Guns And Angry Behavior. Is There A Link?

Whenever Jeffrey Swanson publishes research on gun issues, it’s worth taking a break from whatever else you are doing and read what he has to say.  His work is always rooted in attention to detail, analytical models which fit the problem he is trying to address and, best of all, Is presented in a context which is both realistic and sensitive to other research being conducted in the same field.  If I sound like a fan of Swanson, I am.  And today I caught up with his most recent effort as regards guns and behavioral factors that might increase risk.

The study compares rates of impulsive, angry behavior with access to guns.  Swanson and his research colleagues asked 5,653 respondents to answer questions about their own behavior, and also asked these same research subjects if they owned and/or carried guns.  The subjects lived in cities, suburbs and rural areas throughout the United States, and roughly one-third stated that they owned or had access to firearms, which seems to be what we consider the national firearm ownership rate to be today.
Every respondent was asked whether they had tantrums or angry outbursts; broke something in anger; lost their temper and got involved in physical fights.  These are classic indicators of impulsive, angry behavior, with the tantrums/outbursts being the least serious, the fights being the most serious and the breaking of some object in between.  Both the owners and non-owners of guns reported engaging in all three types of behaviors, with tantrums being three times as common as physical fights for both groups, and the percentage of gun owners and non-gun owners engaging in any of the three anger indicators being about the same.

gangsWhat struck me as I read the survey results was that overall, there was not a great difference between gun owners and non-gun owners regarding to what degree they admitted engaging in any form of impulsive, angry behavior.  Where the difference was clearly pronounced was among the 5% (roughly 290 people out of 5,600) who admitted to owning 11 guns or more, which was the only gun-owning group whose penchant for getting into fights was significantly higher than people who owned no guns at all. For that matter the percentage of the 11+ gun-owning group to get into physical altercations was substantially higher than gun folks who owned less guns.

Where the number of guns owned by individuals seemed to be a real risk issue can be found in the correlation between number of guns owned, engaging in any of the three anger indicators and carrying a gun outside the home.  The good news in this survey was that less than 5% of the respondents reported that they walked around with a gun.  The not-so-good news is that folks who owned 6 or more guns and carried a concealed weapon reported that they engaged in at least one of the three impulsive behaviors 4 times more frequently than persons who owned 5 or fewer guns.

This is the first study I have seen that finds a correlation between the numbers of guns owned  and a propensity to carry one of them around. It undercuts the usual pro-CCW argument that people carry guns to defend themselves against crime.  I always thought that folks who are “into” guns are more likely to carry one, simply because they enjoy doing whatever they can do with their guns.

Notwithstanding my admiration for Swanson’s overall work, I am a little skeptical of his conclusion in this article when he says that it is “reasonable to imagine” that many people with common mental disorders leading to angry, impulsive behavior have an arrest history and therefore should be denied access to guns.  Swanson joins other scholars who have called for more restricted access based on misdemeanors, DUI and other non-felonious behaviors, but I’m not convinced that research so far shows any link between angry impulses and using a gun.  I’m not saying the connection isn’t there; I’m saying that it remains to be found.

Public Health And Public Opinion Don’t Seem To Mesh When It Comes To Guns.

The Injury Control Research Center has been engaged in fruitful and necessary gun research from a public health perspective since it was founded by David Hemenway whose book, Private Guns, Public Health, is a fundamental contribution to the field.  Since May, 2014 the Center has been engaged in an interesting survey effort to measure attitudes of gun researchers towards different aspects of the gun debate.  Each month they send a questionnaire to slightly less than 300 researchers who have published at least one a relevant, peer-reviewed article since 2011.  The questionnaires cover virtually every major argument about guns, from background checks to concealed carry to safe storage and beyond.

     David Hemenway

David Hemenway

The results to date were just summarized in a Mother Jones article which compared the responses of the survey respondents to the arguments against gun control that are made by the NRA.  Not surprisingly, the difference between the public health consensus and the NRA positions on the same gun issues are, to put it mildly, about as wide as what God did to the two sides of the Red Sea.  Here are some salient examples of those differences:

  • The NRA says a gun with a home is safer than a home without a gun, two-thirds of the public health researchers disagreed.
  • The NRA says that guns are used much more frequently in self-defense than in crime, three-quarters of the researchers said it was the other way around.
  • The spread of concealed-carry laws, according to the NRA, has reduced crime, six out of ten researchers disagreed.

What the Mother Jones article did not point out, however, is that the Harvard survey also asked respondents to evaluate the quality of the research, from ‘very weak’ to ‘very strong’  on which their responses were based.  On only one question were the researchers overwhelmingly satisfied with the quality of the research that formed their response, namely, whether a gun in the home made it a safer place.  Only 25% of the respondents felt the research on this issue was medium or weak, whereas more than half believed the research to be ‘strong’ or ‘very strong.’  In other words, of the nine survey questions that have been answered to date, this question not only showed a strong response indicating that a gun did not make a home safer, but it also showed the highest rate of validation in terms of the quality of the relevant research.

How is it that of all the major issues on guns that David Hemenway and his Harvard colleagues surveyed, this issue – the risk versus benefit of owning a gun – not only shows the widest disparity between public health researchers and the NRA, but an equally-wide disparity between public health researchers and the public at large?  I am referring to the recent Gallup poll where  63% said ‘yes’ when asked, ‘Do you think having a gun in the house makes it a safer place to be or a more dangerous place to be?’ This is the fourth time the poll has been taken since 2000, and it was the first time that the affirmative response reached above 60%, never mind ever previously climbing above 50%.

Public concern about global warming was basically non-existent in the U.S. until the 1980s, and as late as 2006 a slight majority of Americans still didn’t think it was a major issue.  But the tide seems to have turned in the last few years, and now only petroleum-funded public figures like Jim Imhofe dare to suggest that global warming isn’t a fact of life.  We can also dismiss the mutterings of the GOP’s most recently-announced Presidential candidate because he mutters about everything.

What can’t be dismissed is the fact that research on the risks versus benefits of gun ownership have failed to persuade a majority of Americans that they would be safer without their guns.  And nothing persuades me that the public perception will change just because the public health community conducts more research. There’s a disconnect here that has yet to be explained.


Everytown Does A New Video And It Really Hits The Mark.

Shannon and the Everytown chicks have just posted a new video which you should watch and push out to all your friends. It’s a collection of excerpts from various appearances by Wayne-o starting with a rather statesmanlike comment quoting Churchill to a descent into lunacy about how a Glock or S&W will protect you from destruction of the national power grid.  The NRA didn’t invent the culture of fear, but they go out of their way to convince their members that the world is going to hell in a hand basket unless everyone goes out and buys a gun.

I like Everytown’s video for two reasons.  First, it’s artistically done and its theme, “fear is not the American way,” is a strong response to the endless fear-mongering by the NRA to promote the false idea that we are weak and therefore need to be afraid. I also like this video is because it’s funny as hell.  The five kids are remarkably cute; they riff their lines with a combination of innocent panache and joyful delight – the video-ending flip of the script is a moment to behold and I guarantee that you’ll play those few seconds again and again.

everytown logo                What both disarms and concerns me about pro-gun video messaging is they take themselves so friggin’ seriously.  I have watched hundreds of minutes of Billy Johnson, Colion Noir, Dom Raso and other NRA commentators, and they never crack a smile, not even a little grin.  The NSSF video on gun safety featuring Julie Golob had some good-looking kids giving brief testimonials, but if you turned off the sound you’d think they were all describing a funeral or some other tragic event.

I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of humor on the pro-gun side.  The last time I went to the NRA show the featured comic at the banquet was Dennis Miller, who’s about as funny as swallowing a bar of soap. But the real reason the marketers promoting the NRA brand take themselves and their message so seriously is because they don’t want their audience, or their would-be audience, to misunderstand what guns are all about.

The NRA began selling guns for self-protection back in the late 1980s when urban crime appeared to briefly spiral out of control.  In 1992 the violent crime rate was 757 per 100,000, in 1983 it was 538, an increase of 40% in just nine years. Nine years later, in 2001, it had dropped back down to 504, but the psychological damage had been done.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century Americans believed they were under threat from crime; they still believe today that crime is seriously on the rise.

It doesn’t really matter whether guns can or cannot protect us from crime.  What matters is what people think about the world around them, particularly the world in which they work and live.  And as Barry Glassner, the foremost authority on the culture of fear reminds us, “Americans have remained inordinately fearful of unlikely dangers,” and when the danger is unlikely, the response, such as carrying a gun, is just as misdirected as the fear itself.

Next week the NRA comes to Nashville for the annual big-deal event, and I can guarantee you that speakers like Perry, Santorum, Rubio, Cruz and Palin will be trying to outbash each other to see who can ratchet up the highest level of fear; fear of Obama, fear of Isis, fear of losing all those guns.  It’s too late for this year but maybe in 2016 the gun-sense groups can get together and hold their own big event. Every organization can have a booth, there won’t be any problem finding vendors to sell the usual junk and most of the big-time rock bands would probably show up for free.  I’ll even read some of my gun blogs – that would draw quite a crowd.  Call it the Convention of Hope; that’s a nice antidote to the NRA’s peddling of fear.  And it just might work.  It might.


If We Curb Straw Sales Do We Curb Gun Crime? I’m Not So Sure.

Last week the NSSF announced they were going to bring their Don’t Lie for the Other Guy billboard campaign to Oakland, CA, Wilmington, DE and Camden, NJ.  They claim that the campaign will generate more than 11 million weekly “media” impressions, which I guess is the number of people who might drive past these billboards in a week.  I always thought that the only roadside billboard which made any impression on drivers was the one that reads Next Exit, but the NSSF probably knows something about advertising that I don’t know.

The gun industry has been promoting this campaign for years, the idea being that conducting a background check for over-the-counter transfers deters “straw” sales. The industry has also been fighting tooth and nail to prevent background checks on transfers of guns that take place outside of a gun shop, but since you can’t lie on a background check form if there is no background check form, in their own stupid way at least the NSSF’s Don’t Lie campaign is nothing if not consistent.

dont lie               One area in which both sides of the gun debate appear to agree is the idea that straw sales are a major source of guns that end up being used in crime.  Obviously the Don’t Lie campaign is based on this premise;  ditto are statements from the various gun-safety advocacy groups.  But when it comes to getting on the Let’s Stop Straw Sales bandwagon, nobody outdoes the ATF.  Not only does ATF partner with the NSSF in the Don’t Lie campaign, but they take the whole thing a step further by running educational seminars for dealers and distributing thousands of Don’t Lie campaign kits to gun shops nationwide. The ATF takes this issue very serious because, according to them, “The denial of guns to prohibited persons is critical to the mission of ATF in preventing violent crime and protecting the nation.”

Which brings us full circle back to the reason for the concern about straw sales in the first place, namely, keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  The idea that we can deter crime by defining certain groups of crime-prone people who are, ipso facto, unable to legally acquire a gun was the basic premise of the GCA68, as well as the Brady bill of 1994. According to the FBI, more than 700,000 gun transfers were denied over the past ten years, which resulted in “saving lives and protecting people from harm.”  In other words, thanks to the NICS system, roughly 70,000 people each year were prevented by NICS from getting their ‘wrong hands’ on guns.  Which brings up some interesting questions:  If 70,000 would-be criminals couldn’t walk into a gun shop each year and briefly thereafter depart with a gun, how come the number of gun homicides since 2000 hasn’t declined at all?  How come the overall rate of firearm violence has not essentially changed since 2003?

I’ll tell you why.  Because maybe, just maybe the ability of criminals to get their ‘wrong’ hands on all those crime guns doesn’t have all that much to do with straw sales.  The Justice Department estimates that at least 200,000 guns are stolen each year, and that’s probably a minimal number at best. Of course the ATF will chime in and tell you that each year they have done more than 300,000 traces of confiscated guns over the same period of time, but if you look at their trace reports carefully you’ll notice that less than 20% involved guns picked up in serious crimes.

One way or another at least 100,000 – 150,000 guns get added to the ‘wrong hands’ arsenal each year without anyone committing a straw purchase at all.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against extending background checks to secondary transactions or private sales.  But for the last twenty years I’ve been listening to public health scholars and gun-safety advocates promote the necessity to curb straw sales and now the chorus also includes the NSSF. Anyone interested in doing something about theft?

Do NICS Background Checks Prevent Guns From Getting Into The ‘Wrong’ Hands? Maybe Yes And Maybe…

The bad news is that Kansas has joined five other crazy states in allowing its residents to walk around carrying concealed handguns without any permitting process at all.  The good news is that Oregon appears to become the fifteenth state that will extend NICS background checks to transactions that were not covered by the Brady legislation enacted in 1994.  The evidence on whether folks with legal CCW privilege are greater threats to use their guns in unsafe ways is, however, still not clear.  But there is virtual unanimity within public health and gun-sense advocacy circles that widening the NICS background check system to cover secondary transactions will substantially reduce gun crimes and rates of gun violence overall.

When it comes to gun violence, the public debate is driven by the degree to which guns in this country are connected in some way to a murder rate that is five to twenty times higher than any other country in the OECD.  It’s not that we are a more violent country per se than places like England, Germany or France, it’s that our violence takes a much more lethal form, given the existence of all those guns.  Despite silly attempts to challenge this argument to the contrary, the data is indisputable which shows the connection between homicide rates and guns.  But the question that I am asking is whether our attempts to curb gun homicides has anything to do with NICS.

nics                The Brady background check system was actually first proposed when a measure to impose a national, seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases was first introduced in 1987 and promptly failed.  The measure was re-introduced in subsequent Congressional sessions until 1992 when, for the first time the law substituted a national background-check process in lieu of a waiting period and, more important, gained the support of President-elect Bill Clinton, who promised to sign the measure if he was in the White House after 1993.  Which is exactly what happened one year later when, following Clinton’s election, a bill calling for a five-year phasing-in of NICS checks hit his Oval Office desk on November 30, 1993 and took effect in February, 1994.

The year that the law first went into effect – 1994 – there were 23,000 murders, of which 16,000, or 46% were committed with guns.  The increase in violent crimes of all types over the previous decade was a major factor in the final passage of the Brady bill, as it would be with the crime bill and ten-year assault weapons ban which Clinton signed at the end of 1994.  Within three months after NICS checks first started up in 1994, the ATF published a report which claimed that Brady had prevented 5% of all handgun purchases because the prospective buyer was a felon or some other type of ‘prohibited’ person, which was “proof” that NICS checks could and reduce violent crime.

Over the past 20 years since the Brady was passed (it became fully operational in 1998), the overall rate of violent crime has dropped by 45% and the murder rate by 52%; in some large cities, particularly New York, the decline has been upwards of 70% or more.  How much of this decline can be tied to any one factor is yet to be fully explained, but the fact is that violent crime, particular homicides, is a far less serious issue than before the government began to use the NICS system to control access to guns.

On the other hand, if our murder rate has been going down, the degree to which murders are committed with guns has been going up. In 2000, guns were used in 65% of all murders; in 2005 guns were used in 68% of homicides, in 2010 guns were the weapons of choice in murders again to the tune of 68%.  It looks to me like our murder rate has dropped by nearly 50% since 1994 while the rate of guns used in homicides has increased by about the same amount.  Isn’t this the reverse of what NICS is supposed to achieve?

Kansas Joins The Crazy Carry States

This past week Kansas became the sixth state to align itself with something called the Constitutional Carry Movement which interprets the 2nd Amendment to mean that anyone can carry a concealed weapon without having to undergo any kind of licensing requirement at all.  I can’t figure out exactly which Constitution is being referenced here, since the last time I looked at the 2008 Heller decision, it explicitly defined the 2nd Amendment as granting Americans the right to keep a gun in their homes. And while I’m no Constitutional scholar, I always thought that we understood the Constitution to mean what the Supreme Court said it meant, but I guess when it comes to guns, anyone’s opinion will trump a Supreme Court legal opinion every time.

On the other hand, the Constitution doesn’t necessarily trump the law of any given state, and if a particular state wants to grant its residents the right to carry around a gun without any licensing procedure at all, then whether such a law constitutes a constitutional endorsement of limitless CCW is rather moot.  But what isn’t moot is the practical effect of such laws, both on folks who decide to go around armed, as well as other folks who don’t want to carry a weapon but happen to live in the same state.

open                I happen to live in a state in which the license to own and purchase a gun is also the same license that allows you to carry a handgun concealed.  There are no special requirements for CCW in my state and everyone who applies for a gun license must take a mandatory safety course which, frankly, usually consists of an afternoon snooze.  Since my state actually has a licensing process, it doesn’t qualify as a “constitutional carry” state, but the practical effect is about the same.  And most states that require some kind of pre-licensing training to be granted CCW don’t impose any serious training burden on CCW candidates at all.  My state, for example, doesn’t require any live fire exercise during the mandatory safety course; Florida requires that the CCW candidate actually pull the trigger once.

Along with the fact that most states grant CCW with minimal or no requirement for actually shooting a gun, most states define CCW licensing criteria only in legal terms.  In other words, if you don’t fall into one of those ‘prohibited’ categories (felon, fugitive, dishonorable discharge, etc.), you can be legally blind or completely lack all muscle coordination and still be allowed to walk around with a gun.  We require candidates for the police academy to pass a battery of physical tests before we let them, as police officers, carry guns, but we seem unwilling to exercise the same degree of caution or common sense when it comes to whether John or Jane Q. Public should be allowed to go around armed.

Last week I wrote about a silly, little public service announcement on gun safety that was recently aired by the NSSF.  It got the gun folks all fired up because who was I to question the credentials of an experienced shooter (and don’t forget that she’s also a Mom) when it comes to talking about safety, kids and guns.  I’m not questioning Ms. Golob’s experience as a competitive shooter, and if she wants to read off a script full of nice-sounding platitudes about kids, family, communication or anything else, that’s fine.  But in more than 5 minutes of talk about guns I never once heard words like ‘dangerous,’ ‘lethal,’ or any other reference to the fact that guns, like it or not, are designed to inflict very serious harm.

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t own them or shouldn’t enjoy them.  But what it does mean is that giving every Tom, Dick, Harry and Francine the ability to carry such lethality around without the slightest proof that they have the mental and physical capacity to keep that lethality under control isn’t to my mind, constitutional carry.  It’s crazy carry.

Available on Amazon.

Gun Trafficking in America - cover

Do Guns End Up In The ‘Wrong’ Hands Because Of Straw Sales? I’m Not So Sure.

Last week I wrote a commentary about the silly, little public service announcement on gun safety produced by the NSSF and pointed out that its message about how to talk to kids about guns had little to do either with kids or with guns.  But the real point of the video was to align the gun industry with safety, family and all those other traditional values that you would think were invented by Daniel Baird Wesson and Horace Smith.  After all, marketing is marketing, right?

But I have been thinking about this issue of gun safety from a different perspective, because I believe that both sides in the gun debate tend to emphasize safety issues that reflect their basic approach to the existence, ownership and use of guns and, in this respect, may be overlooking what the paramount issue of gun safety is really all about.

theft                Ask the average gun-control advocate to tell you the Numero Uno on the agenda and they will probably say something about comprehensive NICS background checks.  This issue, more than any other, has defined the battlefield for the gun-sense community since the Manchin-Toomey Amendment went down the drain after Sandy Hook. And there have been some notable victories in this respect, of which the biggest, recent win was in Washington State where all gun transfers now require contacting the NICS-FBI and the use of an ATF Form 4473.

On the other side, the NRA and its allies continue to promote the idea that gun laws do nothing to promote gun safety because criminals don’t obey laws.  Which means passing a gun-control measure only makes it more of a legal and financial burden on law-abiding gun owners, without any consequent impact on crime.  Instead, the pro-gun community believes that the responsibility for insuring gun safety should be left in gun-owning hands; hence the NSSF video promoting some compassionate and timely discussions between Ma, Pa and the kids.

What’s interesting about the disagreement about gun safety is that both sides agree on the goal, which is to reduce the number of times each year that using a gun results in serious harm.  And when we talk about the harmful use of guns, with all due respect to concerns about unintentional gun injuries of which there are (relatively speaking) very few, or gun suicides in which it’s not clear whether the suicide rate would be all that different if guns weren’t used, what we’re really talking about are the 275,000+ murders, robberies and aggravated assaults committed with guns every year.  That’s a lot of folks who end up dead, wounded or seriously traumatized, and nobody disagrees – at least in theory – that something needs to be done.

There are somewhere between 40 and 50 million households containing at least one gun.  Break into .005% of those residences, steal one gun and the ‘wrong hands’ arsenal increases by 200,000 guns every year.  When you have more than 300 million guns floating around, even a tiny percentage like half of one percent adds up to a lot of crime guns. Know what part of the country has the highest amount of gun theft?  The South. The part of the country with the highest per capita ownership of guns has the highest rate of gun theft as well. Gee – what a surprise!

The ATF has decided that if a gun is picked up at a crime scene less than three years after it was originally sold, then the transfer that first put that gun into the civilian population must have been a straw sale.  But I can’t find any data which tells me whether or when that same gun was stolen from its rightful owner, so to assume that guns move from ‘right’ hands to ‘wrong’ hands through some conscious behavior on the part of the initial, legal owner is to assume something that may not be true at all.  And in all the discussions about gun safety, somehow the issue of theft always seems to get overlooked.


What Does Gun Safety Really Mean?

It’s been a bit more than twenty years since the debate over guns really heated up.  Much of the noise was due to the 1994 Clinton gun bills which the NRA and other gun-owning organizations vigorously opposed, but it also reflected a genuine concern that gun crimes and gun violence were out of control.  And even though crime and gun violence rates then dropped by nearly 50% before the 21st Millennia and continue at historic lows, the argument over what I call the social utility of guns continues to grow.

The social utility of guns from a negative and a positive can be summarized as follows.  On the one hand, public health researchers and gun-control advocates believe that the risks of gun ownership outweigh the gains; i.e., if you own or carry a gun sooner or later someone will get shot and the victim won’t be that bad guy trying to break down your back door.  On the other hand we have the gun makers and gun-owning organizations like the NRA who just as firmly believe that virtually all gun violence is caused by bad guys with guns, and that the level of violent crime would be much higher if we didn’t have the 2nd Amendment right to own or carry a gun.

safe                I happen to believe that the public health research on gun risk is valid.  I also happen to believe that most people who keep a gun around to protect themselves would have absolutely no idea what to do if they found themselves in a position where their physical security depended on their ability to use a gun.  It also doesn’t matter what I happen to believe. We accept all kinds of risks in our lives – smoking, obesity, drinking – for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with our ability or willingness to deal with the risk itself.  So who am I to say that one person’s perception of risk shouldn’t be another person’s equally valid perception of gain?

The fact is that virtually every single gun that is used in an actual or threatened shooting of another human being started out as a legal gun.  And while the recent video about gun histories posted by States United was a clever way to link guns with their use in murders and assaults, the history of every single gun in that faux gun shop started off in the same, legal way. Now I can’t imagine that there’s one law-abiding gun owner out there who consciously would want one of his guns to be used to injure or kill someone else.  Thanks to the NICS, I also don’t think that anything but a small percentage of guns are initially sold to someone who doesn’t legally deserve to own a gun.  But if 11,000 guns are used in homicides, 140,000 in assaults and another 120,000 in robberies, then we can say with some degree of assurance that every year at least 270,000 guns fall into the wrong hands.

It’s all well and good to talk about extending background checks on the one hand, or telling kids to STOP – don’t touch – leave the area – tell an adult- on the other.  But I got news for you.  If 200,000 guns are stolen every year, and that’s a minimum figure, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out how easy it is for guns to get into the ‘wrong’ hands. And if anyone out there believes that the five-dollar cable locks you can pick up at your local police station courtesy of the NSSF is going to stop someone from  stealing your guns, think again.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, thefts of guns are nearly twice as likely to be reported than thefts of other household items of comparable value.  Which means that gun owners understand the consequences of losing their guns.  All the more reason why both sides should be talking about gun safety in terms of theft control, and not just arguing about the social risks versus the social benefits of owning guns.