Do Background Checks Equal Gun Sales? Not By A Long Shot.

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Like most of us, I’m sick and tired of the alt-right’s attack on mainstream media by calling it ‘fake news.’ Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, or worse. But every once in a while our friends in the real news media get it wrong, and this seems to happen frequently when the issue involves guns. Which is not surprising given the fact that liberals and educated folks in general are usually not that versant with guns or gun cultures, which is all the more reason they should be extra careful when they wander onto the gun-owning/using turf.

An example of this lack of knowledge about guns came out today in an NPR story about background checks in which the writer, Uri Berliner, used the latest FBI-NICS check numbers to craft an article about the post-Trump decline in gun sales.  Now young man Berliner has some impressive journalistic creds; according to the NPR website, he is part of the Planet Money team and previously worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. All of which I am sure has given him lots of experience in how to research a story before he sends it out. But this particular story, unfortunately, shows little, if any understanding about trends in the gun business at all.

What Berliner has done is taken the most recent news release from the FBI which gives the overall number of background checks for the previous month, and then assumed without bothering to look at the actual data, that each background check equals the transfer of at least one gun.  His story contains a neat little graphic which shows that monthly background checks have declined from 2.8 million in December to 2.2 million last month, numbers that are far below comparable monthly numbers for 2015. I reproduce the graphic here:

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There’s only one little problem. Berliner is using overall background check numbers (which is what the FBI uses in its press releases because it would like you to know how hard they are working down in West Virginia) which do not distinguish between background checks for gun transfers as opposed to background checks for gun license applications, concealed-carry permits and guns taken out of pawn. You see, the FBI-NICS system isn’t just utilized to make sure that a dealer isn’t putting a gun into the ‘wrong hands.’ It’s also used by law enforcement agencies who don’t have the ability to determine whether a resident of their state applying for a gun or CCW license hasn’t committed a disqualifying crime in some other state.

Had Berliner taken the trouble to look at the actual FBI-NICS data which can be seen here, he would have discovered that of those 2.2 million background checks processed in February, more than half had nothing to do with gun transfers at all. In fact, February, 2017 was the first month that background checks for something other than gun transfers actually exceeded background checks on guns since the FBI started breaking out their numbers back in 1998. And when you examine the background check data in detail, what jumps out is the degree to which the sale of guns (using NICS as a proxy) has declined much more than what the NPR story would lead us to believe.

I’m not saying that Berliner is incorrect when he claims that the gun industry is in the midst of a post-Trump slump. But let’s remember that the whole background check issue is the Numero Uno issue being discussed and debated among organizations that seek to reduce gun violence and believe that expanding background checks is a proper way to proceed.

You would think that NPR would at least understand the necessity of verifying the data which they use to construct a story based on background checks. You would think that the gun violence prevention (GVP) community would want to understand what the data actually means.

You would think….

Trump Gives The Gun Lobby What They Deserve – Nothing.

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trump5Just a few days before the election and the beginning of the end of American democracy as we know it, Fuhrer Trump announced the formation of an advisory group, or what he called a ‘campaign coalition,’ that would advise him on matters of importance to the gun industry and to all those gun owners who were depending on Der Fuhrer to protect their 2nd-Amendment rights.  The group was to be led by Donald Trump, Jr. and Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA, and its 62 co-chairs represented the true flotsam and jetsam of the gun world, including various self-appointed conservationists and outdoor types, heads of gun-rights organizations that had never been heard of before or since, a few gun makers from second-tier companies (none of the major industry players like Glock, S&W, Ruger, etc., were part of this cabal) and a number of members of the NRA Board.

The purpose of this group, as it was explained by co-chair John Boch in an interview with USA Today, is to provide “policy and legislative recommendations for the new administration through Donald Trump Jr.,” except that such activities take on a much different hue when the individual being counseled is no longer a political candidate but happens now to be President of the United States.

One of the many things that neither Trump nor his circle of advisors seem to understand is that you can’t run the Executive Branch of the Federal Government the way you run a private company because the people who elected you, and even the people who voted against you, have certain legal prerogatives to know just what the hell you are doing in their name. If an organization comes into existence for the purpose of advising the President, its structure and functions fall under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which might require the group to have a charter, hold public meetings, maintain open records, and have procedures for public input. So far, this particular group meets none of those requirements.

But the reason that the group doesn’t yet carry out its functions in line with the Federal Advisory Act is that, in fact, the group has never actually met and nobody seems to know whether it will ever meet or do anything else which might actually represent even the slightest effort to protect gun owners and their precious, 2nd-Amendment rights. The USA Today reporter who wrote this story couldn’t actually find anyone at the White House who knew anything about the organization; requests to interview Trump Jr. were ignored, ditto requests for comments from Chris Cox.

There’s a lawyer in Texas named Ben Langlotz, who has published the complete list of co-chairs on his website, along with an effort to identify what each of these folks actually does.  Seven of the members of this gun coalition are described as ‘affiliation unknown,’ another is referred to as ‘musician, army veteran,’ another is a ‘retired police sergeant,’ and another is described as a ‘NRA volunteer.’ Of course there’s someone from the Tea Party and a gal named Theresa Vail who is described as a ‘television personality’ but is, in fact, a former Miss Kansas, now appearing on the Outdoor Channel, who was arrested in 2015 for illegally killing a grizzly bear. Her lawyer claimed it was an accident but later admitted that ‘errors of judgement occurred.’

Folks who believe that Donald Trump threatens to undo even the most benign gun regulations are probably not far from the truth. But let’s not forget that this new Administration is also showing itself to be politically inept to a degree never previously seen. So whatever plans they have for expanding the rights of Americans to go about killing themselves with their guns, there’s also a good chance that through sheer stupidity and incompetence many of those plans, like the aforementioned gun advisory group, will never see the light of day. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

It’s Not The ‘Gun Lobby’ That Wants To End Gun Regulations – It’s The Gun Owners Themselves.

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The Chicago Tribune has just published an op-ed by Fermin DeBrabender, who wrote a provocative book (Do Guns Make Us Free?) arguing that gun ownership actually reduces freedom by restricting the degree to which citizens will engage in open, political discourse when members of the audience show up toting guns.  In his Tribune piece, Professor DeBrabender makes the argument that the gun industry is facing a “market crisis” due to the collapse of demand since the election of #45 and is responding to this crisis by promoting all kinds of laws and legalisms – open carry, campus carry, permitless carry – that will “make owning and carrying a gun more common, more normal, more ingrained in our culture and everyday life.”

dealers              This is hardly a new thesis and the gun industry’s promotion of the ‘normalization’ of toting around a gun long precedes the collapse of retail sales since the replacement of anti-gun Obama and the appearance of pro-gun Trump.  But to ascribe the easing of gun restrictions to some kind of evil hand belonging to some nefarious entity known as the ‘gun lobby’ is to obscure what I believe is a necessary understanding of what gun ownership in America is really all about.

The truth is that there isn’t a gun ‘lobby’ if what we mean is the existence and activity of some kind of organized, institutionalized effort to support or promote the aims of the gun industry wherever guns are sold. Yes, the NRA has a lobbying arm known as NRA-ILA, which promotes and coordinates pro-gun legislative initiatives both in individual states as well as with the feds. There are also independent pro-gun groups in many states whose members will show up at a public hearing whenever a gun law is being discussed. And make no mistake, these groups are well-funded, they are active and they claim to be able to sway elections with their pro-gun votes.

Except if you look carefully at the history of pro-gun legislation, particularly its spread since the late 1970’s when the first wave of laws liberalizing concealed-carry began to appear, you will note that, again and again, these laws have changed the legal landscape much more in states owned politically by the GOP; gee – what a surprise considering the fact that gun owners, in the main, tend to vote red.  There are still 9 states where the issuance of permits to carry a gun are dependent upon the discretionary judgement of law enforcement officials – every one of those states happens to contain a majority of residents who usually vote blue.

What Professor DeBrabender has overlooked (and I mean no criticism of his otherwise-excellent op-ed in this regard) is that much, if not most of the impetus for liberalizing or discarding gun regulations comes not from the top, so to speak, but from the bottom; i.e., the basic attitudes on the part of gun owners themselves. When the NRA refers to gun owners as ‘law-abiding’ citizens, this may be the one statement they make which is absolutely true.  Most gun owners are law-abiding because otherwise you can’t buy or even own a gun. And guns are the only consumer product which can only be sold to legally-qualified consumers, you don’t need to pass a background check to buy a car.

Every time I go into a gun shop I’m made instantly aware of the fact that just my presence in that shop carries with it the necessity that I must follow various laws. And every weekend when tens of thousands of people visit gun shows they are all equally cognizant of the fact that their legal status is a verifiable issue if they walk up to a dealer’s table to purchase a gun. The existence of 40 million legal gun owners is a much more potent force for doing away with gun regulations than any strategy employed by the ‘gun lobby,’ and talking with those gun owners about gun violence should go hand-in-hand with worrying about whether the gun industry will sell more guns.

An Idea For Regulating Gun Dealers That Would Really Get Results.

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I received an interesting email today from the Illinois Council against Handgun Violence (ICHV) with a link to a new website which compares regulations and laws governing the manufacture of teddy bears with the regulations and laws covering the manufacture of guns. To sell a new teddy bear at a retail store or anywhere else, for that matter, the toy must meet more than 20 separate laws and regulations, including whether the teddy has sharp points, contains lead or could result in choking or some other health hazard from too-small parts. As for guns, all you need is a federal firearms license which basically says that you’ve never been in jail, and with this license you’re good to go.

ICHV             The point of the website, of course, is to draw attention to the fact that guns are the most unregulated consumer product around, largely because the gun lobby succeeded in getting guns exempted from regulation when the Consumer Product Safety Commission was created back in the 1970’s, and the exemption has remained in force up through today. There are a handful of states which set safety standards for new handguns and require that any new gun sold in those states must first be tested to meet certain design standards such as trigger pull, drop test and multiple safeties for pistols; there are no safety design requirements for long guns imposed by any state.

What drew my attention to the ICHV website, however, was not just the eye-catching graphic comparing consumer regulations of teddy bears versus guns; what I also read with interest was the notice of a new law that was initially introduced in 2015 but has not yet seen the light of day.  The law, known as the Gun Dealer and Ammunition Seller Act, would for the first time create a state gun dealer licensing procedure which currently only exists in 16 states. Every gun dealer of course has to obtain a federal license from the ATF, but on average the ATF gets around to inspect less than 10% of all dealers, and less than half the licensed dealers have been inspected within the last five years.

Even in gun shops which have been identified as sources of large numbers of crime guns it’s really not clear whether guns were purchased for immediate (and illegal) resale or whether the guns were simply stolen and then at some later date ended up in the street. The average time-to-crime for all traced firearms, according to the ATF, is over 11 years, and while there are shops where lots of crime guns show up in the wrong hands within two years or less after they are first purchased, this is the extreme exception and hardly the rule.

The bottom line, however, is that if gun dealers had to abide not just by federal law but also local regulations, there’s no doubt that gun retailers would be less of a factor in being the source of crime guns, if only because the bad guys would know that using a local store for getting their hands on guns would have the local cops chasing them, not just the faraway feds.

In this regard, I found a part of the Illinois law very interesting because it mandates as part of the licensing requirement that every dealer install a functioning video system that would capture the identity of every person who actually purchases a gun. This law also requires that dealers post a sign which warns that a video system is in use – you would be amazed at the extent to which active video serves as a real deterrent to criminal behavior in a public place.

I think the new ICVH website is a really good job; I’m sending them a donation to support their Teddy Bear campaign and I hope their effort to get a state dealer licensing law bears fruit. Asking dealers to protect themselves and their law-abiding customers is no violation of anyone’s 2nd-Amendment rights.

Some Physicians Talk About Their Experiences With Gun Violence Victims.

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There’s a cute little website out there called Dr. Oz – The Good Life, which purports to be one of those ‘wellness’ websites that gives you information on diet, exercise, skin care, you know what I mean.  Dr. Oz is actually a television personality named Dr. Mehmet Oz whose medical advice over the years has been attacked by other physicians as ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘quackery,’ even though he still retains his position as Director of Integrative Medicine at Columbia University. His online CV he lists his highest honor as his Emmy Award for Best Daytime Television Host, which is what ‘integrative medicine’ is really all about.

md-counsel              The website is really a vehicle for health and wellness advertising, the products you can purchase to help you lose weight, gain control over your thinning hairline, etc., etc., etc., just abound. But the website also contains an occasional article of some medical value, with a current article entitled, “When Bullets Meet Bodies: What Doctors Think About Gun Violence” written by a faculty member from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The article is a series of interviews with professionals who have treated gunshot victims, including a several surgeons, an occupational therapist, a pediatrician and an EMT chief.

As you can imagine, these interviews reflect the reality of gun violence at the level at which it really occurs, namely, in the medical facilities that have to deal with the people who get shot and whose lives often hang in the balance based on whether the attending medical staff gets it done timely and gets it done right. Gunshot wounds are probably the worst kind of injury because a bullet can and will travel through the human body damaging multiple organs at the same time. So a bullet that enters someone’s torso might go through a lung, sever an artery, smash a rib or two – what do you work on first? Most of the stories collected by the writer, Jennifer Wolff, are first-hand accounts of the difficulties and dangers involved in patching someone up.

Every physician interviewed for this story advocated stricter controls over firearms and clinical interventions by physicians to reduce gun violence before it occurs except one. And the one doctor who felt that his colleagues should basically stay outside of the gun debate is a psychiatrist named Robert Young, who happens to be affiliated with something called Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership, which claims a national membership of physicians except they have never given out an actual number of the size of their organization, even though they have managed over the past twenty-five years to inject their stupid views into all kinds of public discussions about doctors and guns.

I say ‘stupid’ because not only do their uninformed, pro-gun views clash directly with the stated positions on gun violence published by every, professional medical society in the land, but when they get up and say something in public they just as often get it wrong. In the OZ interview, Young states that the Florida gag law which criminalizes doctors who talk to patients about guns is “under appeal and not yet enforced.” Well I guess Dr. Young hasn’t yet heard about the decision of the 11th Federal Circuit on February 17 which overturned the Florida gag law for good. But the even more remarkably stupid thing he says is that if he has a suicidal patient, “I make a plan with whoever else lives in their house to keep them from potentially lethal things. That includes firearms, but it also includes knives.” Is he joking? Is he comparing the lethality of a gun to the lethality of a knife?

I suspect that the reason Jennifer Wolff gave Dr. Young some space is that she didn’t want to be accused of only hearing from one side. But with all due respect to the canons of journalistic practice there is only one side with respect to the medical risk caused by guns. And except for a few brainless physicians like Dr. Young, this is something which, thankfully, the medical community fully understands.

Just Because I Don’t Think That Guns Make Us Safe Doesn’t Mean I’m Right.

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My friend Shannon Watts received an interesting email the other day on her Facebook page, and since she shared it with all of us, I feel comfortable responding to what the writer of that message had to say.  I’ll quote the relevant words: “Until you can guarantee me my safety, and that of my loved one, I will continue to take care of myself and my loved ones, as i have done these many years.”

 

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Shannon Watts

The writer then went on to add the usual semi-literate comments about ‘asshole liberalism,’ and other turns of a phrase. Shannon receives comments like this all the time so what else is new? But I want to look at what Gun-nut Nation means when they talk about ‘guaranteeing’ safety, because I think this notion gets to the heart of what the gun debate is really all about.

Do you notice how #45 (if he’s still #45) never lets an opportunity go by without saying that he wants to make the country ‘safe?’ He’s building a wall to keep us ‘safe.’ He’s restricting immigration to make us ‘safe.’ I’m sure that if the GOP had managed to jettison the ACA that this colossal act of political stupidity would have somehow been seen as making us ‘safe.’

I’m not saying that most or even many gun owners walk around thinking that the only thing they can depend on in this terrible unsafe world is that 20-ounce piece of steel and polymer which has the unfortunate tendency to flop onto the floor when they pull their pants down and squat on the can. Most gun owners are like me (and I own lots, really lots of guns) – the guns have always been around, I like having them around, it’s something fun and that’s the end of that.

But then you get those jerks like the jerk who wrote that dopey Facebook note to Shannon who really believe they need to have a gun because it makes them feel ‘safe.’ And you could tell someone like that again and again that there are countless studies which show that guns won’t make you any safer and what you’ll get is a blink, a nod, and a restatement of the ‘fact’ that he ‘knows’ that his gun will make him ‘safe.’

We’re not talking reality here, folks. We’re talking emotions, pure and simple, and emotions, particularly fearful emotions, always trump facts.  It’s like my friend Al who takes 5 days to drive to back and forth to Florida each Winter because he’s afraid to fly. I can tell him from today to next year that he’s much safer in an airplane than trundling down I-95 and he’s still going to drive.

When you stop and think about it, the decision of the gun industry to market their products by appealing to fear is a brilliant master stroke. Because I can’t think of another consumer product whose basic use has been transformed so radically even though the way the product functions hasn’t changed at all.  Pull the trigger and it goes – bang! That’s the way a gun works and has always worked. But using a gun to bring down Bambi, a high-flyer or clay bird is one thing, using it to ‘guarantee’ your ‘safety’ is something else.

If we’ve learned one thing from the power of advertising media, it’s that people can be made to believe all kinds of things which may bear no relationship to reality at all. But who made me the ultimate authority on what’s believable or what’s true when it comes to guns? The fact that I write about guns and I own lots of guns doesn’t mean that anyone else should necessarily to adopt my point of view.  And if I can’t persuade Al that he’s safer flying to Florida than driving down there in his truck, why should someone who really believes that his gun ‘guarantees’ his safety want to rethink his own point of view?

 

Are Guns Getting Safer? Don’t Believe What You Hear.

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Once again the gun industry is patting itself on the back for something it didn’t do, namely, reducing accidental deaths and injuries caused by guns. Hey – wait a minute! It’s not the gun which causes the injury, it’s the person using the gun. Remember that one? The NRA will remind you of it every chance they get no matter whether we are talking about a gun which went off accidentally, or on purpose, or on whatever, it’s always the person, not the gun.

nsf              Which is why the gun industry continues to talk out of both sides of its mouth on this one – congratulating itself every time that statistics allegedly show a decline in gun accidents but rejecting any and all efforts to mandate gun safety either through the development of safe-gun technologies or passage of child access prevention (CAP) laws to keep guns out of the hands of kids.

Why do I say that the statistics ‘allegedly’ show a decline in gun accidents?  After all, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) didn’t dream up the latest information on gun safety all by itself.  Their press release is based on the latest report from the National Safety Council (NSC) which says that gun accidents declined 17 percent from 2014 to 2015, the same year that gun sales hit an all-time high.

The NSC’s information comes from the CDC, whose website shows a drop in accidental gun deaths from 586 in 2014 to 489 the following year. Of course the numbers for accidental, non-fatal gun accidents only show a 5% drop from 2013 to 2014, but like unintentional gun mortality, this number has also steadily dwindled down.

Incidentally, although the NSSF couldn’t wait to rush forward and take responsibility for the good news from the NSC, in fact the Council isn’t so enamored of the gun industry’s safety record.  Take a look at the NSC’s Statement on Firearms Policy which actually claims that more than 1,400 deaths occur annually because of gun accidents. The NSC goes on to say, “The absence of a reliable system for collecting and analyzing such accident data makes extremely difficult any meaningful evaluation of the effectiveness of accident prevention programs.”  Know why we don’t have any ‘reliable system’ for understanding the true extent of gun injuries?  Because the gun industry has steadfastly rejected any and all attempts to reinstate CDC funding for gun research, remember?

But when it comes to gun injuries, there’s a much bigger problem than just whether we can get good data, and this is a problem which neither side in the gun debate seems to understand. Because the fact is that unless one breaks down gun injuries not by the number of injuries, or by the age, race, sex or location of the victim (the current categories utilized by the CDC,) but by the type of gun that caused the injury, you really can’t tell much about the issue of gun accidents at all. You might find bits and pieces of such information in the data collected by the National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) but it’s sporadic and highly fragmentary at best.

Why do we need to know what kind of gun caused the accident?  Because most long gun accidents occur during hunting (e.g., Dick Cheney) but handgun accidents rarely have anything to do with walking in the woods. And if we don’t know the ratio of handgun to long gun accidents, both fatal and non-fatal, then we understand very little about guns, gun use or gun safety at all.

The NSSF is absolutely correct when they use the NSC report to champion the idea that hunting is one of the ‘safest’ outdoor activities around. There’s only one little problem. We don’t hunt as frequently as we used to hunt and most new guns now being added to the civilian arsenal are handguns, and may account for the lion’s share of ‘accidental’ shootings each year. Isn’t it time the gun industry took the NSC at its word and did something meaningful about safety and guns?

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