The Center for American Progress has just issued a report on gun violence and hate crimes, and like all CAP reports, the authors have digested a wealth of data and given us important and arresting information about a serious aspect of gun violence, namely, the use of guns in crimes motivated by hate. Actually, the report emphasizes two issues, because in addition to guns being used in disputes motivated by racial, gender, religious and other forms of hate expression, we also have the problem that individuals convicted of misdemeanor hate crimes can also continue to buy and own guns.
Hate crime misdemeanors are not the only misdemeanors which, even after sentencing, still allow an individual to maintain ownership of guns. In fact, under federal law, the only misdemeanor which carries an outright prohibition on firearm ownership is domestic violence, and when we move from the federal level to the states, the laws on misdemeanor gun prohibitions are so diffuse, so different and so unlike one another that it’s not worth trying to summarize the situation at all. Suffice it to say that there are lots of people walking around with guns who might be considered a threat to public safety in one place but in another locality they are not considered any kind of a risk.
The problem with hate crimes and guns is even more complicated by the fact that we simply don’t know how many such crimes actually occur. First of all, hate crimes appear to be seriously underreported, with 60%-70% of all violent hate crimes which victims claim to have suffered each year never officially reported to the police. And we aren’t talking about a rare event; according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 200,000 hate crimes are committed each year. Between 2010 and 2014, according to the CAP study, there were 1.2 million hate crimes, of which roughly 43,000 involved the use of a gun.
This also gets us into a bit of an issue with the data, because according to the BJS, roughly one-quarter of all hate crimes involve the use of a weapon, which obviously includes things other than guns. And the inability of the BJS to come up with any kind of valid number for gun hate crimes forces the authors of the CAP report to base the numbers of guns used in hate crimes on what they admit is a rough estimate at best. Which gets back to a very basic problem which pervades every aspect of the gun issue, namely, there is no mandated reporting system that captures criminal gun use in any comprehensive way.
On the other hand, we know from studies summarized by Wintemute that persons convicted of misdemeanor assaults other than domestics are not necessarily restricted from owning guns, ditto misdemeanor violence of other types, ditto misdemeanor offenses growing out of alcohol abuse. And we also know that many misdemeanors should be classified as felonies but are plead down because it’s easier and faster to get a misdemeanor conviction than to run every criminal case through open court.
Which brings us back to the first issue raised in the CAP report, namely, the fact that misdemeanor convictions for hate crimes rarely involve a loss of guns. Because the report points out that although 23 states have passed laws prohibiting persons convicted of certain violent misdemeanors from having access to guns, only 3 states have extended such prohibitions to include misdemeanor hate crimes.
We are now in a Presidential campaign which, among other things, appears to be turning on the extent to which Americans can be made to feel afraid of Muslims not only abroad but right here at home. The gun industry has always used fear to promote ownership of guns, so now Gun Nation has a new bogey-man whose existence can be used to ignite more gun sales. Maybe Obama won’t be the last President to deserve a Salesman of the Year award from Smith & Wesson or Glock.