Did The Cops Miss The Boat On Stopping Sandy Hook?

Last week the gun violence prevention (GVP) community went into overdrive when the release of a batch of FBI Sandy Hook documents indicated that the Newtown cops were warned about Adam Lanza’s intention to commit mayhem at least four years before the actual event took place. The information appears in interview notes of an unidentified man who claimed he heard Adam Lanza make the threats which the man claims he transmitted to the local police. According to the man’s testimony, the cop who took the call told him that Nancy Lanza was the legal owner of the guns which meant there was nothing the cops could do but the caller could contact the State Police.

FBI logoComing on the heels of Las Vegas, where another shooter evidently killed and wounded more than 500 people with a legally-owned AR, the story out of Newtown only adds fuel to the GVP argument that some way has to be found to keep guns like the AR-15 out of civilian hands.

But there’s only one little problem, namely, that the story full of holes.  And it cannot be accepted even on face value, never mind the fact that the Newtown police can’t find any record of someone making such a call, because it would have been simply impossible for someone answering the telephone at the police station to have said what was allegedly said.

Please believe me when I say it’s too bad that facts keep getting in the way of opinions, but the fact is that nobody working for any police agency in Connecticut would have been able to know whether: a) Nancy Lanza owned an AR-15; b) whether she had purchased it legally or where it came from; or, c) whether the State Police should have been contacted or not. Why? Because first of all before 2014, when Connecticut passed a new gun-control law in response to Sandy Hook, purchasing a long gun from a dealer did not require anything other than the standard FBI-NICS check, information which the FBI has to destroy within 24 hours after the check is complete. Purchasing a handgun in CT in 2008 required an additional background check conducted by the State Police and this procedure was then extended to long guns but only after the new law was passed in 2014.

It would have been impossible for anyone employed by the Newtown Police Department to tell a caller about the legal status or even the existence of an AR-15 allegedly owned by someone else. On the other hand, if someone contacts a police department in Newtown, CT or Oshkosh, WI or anywhere, reporting a threat that involves potential injury to numerous individuals isn’t brushed off. There isn’t a police department in the United States which doesn’t have a very clear procedure for responding to a report about the possible commission of a serious crime. Maybe the cops don’t respond immediately, maybe the patrol car goes to the wrong address, but don’t tell me that if I called up and said that someone just told me they were going down to the local elementary school to shoot everyone in sight that I would lean back, yawn and tell the caller to contact the State Police.

Remember when Elliot Rodger rampaged through Isla Vista, CA and killed six people on May 23, 2014?  Three weeks earlier his parents contacted the Isla Vista PD and said they were concerned because their son had voiced threats and they were worried about his mental state. The cops dispatched no less than three officers who confronted Elliott outside where he lived but unfortunately made the mistake of forgetting to ask him whether he had any guns. But the bottom line is that police don’t dismiss credible reports about violence which has not yet taken place. And if we are going to advocate measures to reduce gun violence, let’s just make sure our strategies align with the facts.

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Everyone Supports Universal Background Checks. So What?

As a member of the NRA (I’m actually an endowment member so they can’t throw me out no matter what I say) I get emails from the NRA-ILA alerting me to state and federal gun laws which either weaken or strengthen gun ‘rights’ and the NRA’s response to such laws on both sides. The NRA has never bumped into a law which might make it more difficult for red-blooded Americans to exercise those precious 2nd-Amendment ‘rights,’ but as a follower of don Corleone’s admonition to Michael about keeping friends close but enemies closer, I always read what the NRA-ILA has to say.

NICS   The last missive I received contained a summary of laws recently introduced in Congress which represent “longstanding proposals that would burden innocent Americans at every turn.”  Chief among these proposals is the old bugaboo about ‘universal’ background checks which the NRA characterizes as a “perennial favorite of the gun control crowd,” because it “seeks to interpose the government (and expensive fees) into every exchange of firearms, including between trusted neighbors, close friends, and even family members,”  This warning is then followed by the NRA’s coup de grace statement about all GVP-backed legislation, namely, that it will “chip away at the right to keep and bear arms until it becomes out of reach to the average American.” The same, old, slippery-slope argument which is used against ‘responsible’ gun regulations every, single time.

The gun violence prevention (GVP) community always cites the endless public surveys which allegedly show that a solid majority of Americans, even gun-owning Americans, even NRA, gun-owning Americans, are in favor of some extension of background checks beyond the initial, over-the-counter sale. I don’t believe these polls not just because the NRA is totally against such an idea, but because those survey results don’t square with anything I ever experienced in selling more than 12,000 rifles, shotguns and handguns in my own retail gun store.

I can guarantee you that every time I sold a gun in my shop, the purchaser filled out an ATF Form 4473 which I then used to contact the FBI-NICS examiners in West Virginia in order to get an approval for the sale.  When the ATF audited my shop in 2013, they couldn’t find one, single instances in which we failed to get FBI-NICS approval before completing a sale. But I can tell you that at least half the customers made overt and nasty comments about the ‘goddamn government,’ or the ‘goddamn Kennedys,’ or the ‘goddamn Clintons’ while they were filling out the 4473 form.  And I can also say without fear of contradiction that had the instant FBI-NICS check been voluntary, those same customers would have turned it down.

Nobody likes the government when it comes to be told what we must do.  We pay taxes because we have to pay them, we (usually) drive at the speed limit because otherwise we might end up adding points to our license, paying a fine and seeing our insurance rates go up. In fact, many of us wouldn’t even bother to buy automobile insurance except we don’t have a choice. So why would anyone believe that just because people say that FBI-NICS is a ‘good thing,’ that those same folks can’t wait for the imposition of universal background checks?

Last month more than 26,000 guns were purchased in New York. How many private gun transfers took place? Less than 700. In New York State every gun transfer now requires a NICS background check, and it is simply not possible that in a state as big as New York that less than 3% of all gun transfers go between private hands. And yet many of the same folks who can’t be bothered to walk into a gun shop to give a gun to someone else will say they support universal NICS checks.

Know why the NRA opposes NICS checks? Because they know how gun owners really think, which is still something of a mystery for the GVP.

What Happened In Las Vegas? Nobody Knows And Nobody Cares.

Our man Shaun Dakin sent me a note the other day expressing profound grief at the degree to which the Las Vegas shooting has slipped from public view. And there’s no question that he’s correct. The issue of bump-stocks is now morphing into a regulatory problem for the ATF and I notice that bump-stock manufacturers are no longer pretending that they’ve shut down and left town. As for any new gun laws, those are just as dead post-Las Vegas as they were dead prior to the rampage event. Shaun also asked me to come up with a theory as to why this event has had such a brief media shelf-life, so here goes.

LV2    You would think that the worst mass shooting not just in U.S. history but in the entire history of small-arms would still be making some media noise. But the only media mention in the last few days has been a story about how off-duty cops from California who were in the concert crowd and performed heroic, life-saving efforts have been temporarily denied workmen’s comp so that they can spend some time off the job nursing both physical and mental wounds. The problem may eventually be sorted out but the story has already disappeared.

Talk about disappearing, it now turns out that the shooter, Stephen Paddock, is presumed to have removed a hard drive from his laptop computer before ending his own life. But the hard drive evidently can’t be found. Which raises two interesting questions: How do investigators know that it was Paddock who removed the drive; and where the hell is the drive? Computer memories tend to be a basic piece in evidence when law enforcement attempts to figure out motives, or movements of someone being investigated, particularly if the suspect happens to be dead. I’m still waiting for the Las Vegas Police to announce the results of the ‘internal’ investigation which was going to tell us which cop walked into Paddock’s hotel room and took pictures of him lying there dead. Now we can add another reason for this investigation never to be done.

Getting back to Shaun’s question about how come nobody’s interested in what happened at the Mandalay Bay, I think the quick way in which the whole thing has simmered down is basically a reflection of how the issue was handled by the man at the top. I’m referring here to Trump who made his first statement on Monday which sounded like either someone had put part of Obama’s brain into his head or at least doped him up to the point that he sounded restrained and dignified for the first time in his entire public life. Then he went out to Vegas and not only was quiet and respectful again, but even said words like ‘gun laws,’ a nomenclature which has never previously slipped out of his mouth.

This is the same Trump who bowed and scraped every time Gun-nut Nation accused Hillary of ‘politicizing’ the gun issue whenever she talked about gun violence during the campaign. This is the same Trump who continues to wax eloquent about how mass shooters are just really ‘sick’ guys even though most mass shooters do not present any symptoms of mental illness prior to engaging in a rampage-shooting event.

The afternoon that 28 people were killed at Sandy Hook, Obama went on television and mentioned other mass shootings, said that such events had occurred too many times, and promised to work for a political solution to keep such events from happening again. Two days later he appeared at a prayer vigil at Sandy and promised to “use whatever power this office holds” to stop mass violence caused by guns.

Know what? It’s not mass shootings that have stopped – it’s the attempt to regulate the use of guns which produce mass violence that has come to an end. Which is why Las Vegas is no longer an issue of  media concern. Which is why Shaun Dakin’s grief will continue to be profound.

 

 

Guns And Black Swans Go Together.

As the gun violence prevention community (GVP) continues its search for narratives about gun violence which may find a responsive echo within the gun ‘rights’ movement, I suggest that everyone take some time and read Nasim Taleb’s remarkable book, Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Because the basic point in this work is the degree to which strongly-held beliefs are based on things which are simply not true. And if there’s one Black Swan belief which is as improbable as any, it’s the idea that walking around with a gun will protect you from crime.

swan             That gun ownership is a necessary response to crime is the fundamental axiom upon which the entire gun ‘rights’ movement and narrative is built. After all, being able to protect yourself is a God-given right, recognized in every legal tradition. And if packing a gun gives you the best chance of defending against an attack, how could anyone support any law that might threaten or limit the ownership of guns?

The fact is, however, that credible studies clearly show little, if any connection between access to a gun and protection from crime. This is mostly because the probability that someone packing a gun will actually be attacked ranges from scant to none. Further, even if John Lott is correct in arguing that because criminals believe that more Americans are frequently armed, this tends to make them shift their criminality to non-violent crime, the data to support this idea remains in dispute.

We are all familiar with surveys which show that a majority of gun owners now say that the primary reason they own a gun is for self-defense. But is this a classic Black Swan or is it based on some degree of reality or truth?  I decided to test this Black Swan with a survey which I am asking gun owners to take, and nearly 100 self-described gun owners have been engaged. You can view the survey here.  My selection methodology is based on running Facebook ads sent to FB pageholders who have indicated an interest in guns with the usual key words: guns, hunting, shooting, etc.  In another week or so I am going to publish the final results, but here is what I have learned so far.

Nearly 80% of the respondents believe that having access to a gun makes them less afraid of being a victim of violent crime. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 1% of the American population age 12 or over are victims of a violent crime each year.

In my survey, 4% have been victims of a violent crime. One of the victims claimed that his sister was raped, one was assaulted, another was held up while pumping gas late at night. One victim, a man above the age of 50, was kidnapped but provided no details.

I inserted a number of demographic questions in the poll to make sure I was capturing real gun owners and I am.  Respondents are, on average, older white males, have owned guns for more than 15 years, purchased a gun in the last 12 months and 65% live in the Midwest or the South.

Now here’s the Black Swan. I didn’t ask poll-takers to tell me whether they had ever used a gun for self-defense. But 96% of the respondents couldn’t have done so because they had not been victims of a serious crime. So why do more than 80% of the respondents believe that having access to a self-defense gun will make them safe?

Here’s what I have learned from the more than 90 people who took the time to answer my survey. Just about everyone who believes in the validity of armed self-defense is holding that belief for reasons other than what has happened to them. And all these surveys which show that a majority of gun owners support self-defense use of guns don’t tell us anything at all. In particular, these surveys shed no light on how to turn the Black Swan into a White Swan.

 

 

What Types Of Guns Are The Most Lethal? Depends On How They’re Used.

One of the major gaps in public health gun research has just been filled with an article that details the kinds of guns that are used in gun violence of all kinds, in particular the slightly less than 80,000 who ended up in a hospital emergency room with some type of gun wound. The study was conducted by researchers and surgeons connected to Johns Hopkins University Hospital, and covered a representative national sample of all ER gun-injury admissions from 2006 to 2014.

ER             The importance of knowing what type of gun was used to inflict that violence shouldn’t be underestimated for the simple reason that regulating gun ownership with more than 300 million guns floating around can be a fairly costly dead end.  Right now the guy who walks into my gun shop and buys a bolt-action hunting rifle which holds 4-5 cartridges has to jump through the same legal hoops as the guy who walks in and buys a Glock 17 which holds 16 or 17 high-powered rounds.  And the idea that any gun which changes hands without a background check could be a greater threat to public safety flies in the face of how we usually think about the lethality of guns.  But thanks to the researchers at Hopkins, for the first time we can make the connection between what kinds of guns are involved in different types of gun violence and perhaps craft policies that better reflect what types of guns need to be controlled.

Along with figuring out what types of guns are used for different types of gun violence events, the researchers also put together some interesting data on the demographics of individuals who are injured with a gun. Interestingly, the age cohorts for persons sustaining gun injuries showed a similar pattern for accidents, suicides and assaults; i.e., in all three categories, victims ages 18-29 appeared most frequently, whereas I would have thought that gun suicide attempts were higher as the patient age went up.  We have always known that young men are most vulnerable when it comes to guns and assaults, but their vulnerability to gun violence evidently extends to suicide as well.

The most important takeaway from this research effort, however, is the finding that different types of guns figure prominently in different types of injuries.  When someone ends up in the ER as the result of a handgun wound, there’s better than a 50-50 chance that the shooting was an intentional assault. If the wound was from a shotgun, the chances were 4 out of 10 that it was an assault but intentional injuries from AR-style rifles were 3 out of 10. What was the weapon responsible for most unintentional injuries? A standard hunting rifle, figuring in more than 7 out of 10 accidents, followed by AR rifles at more than 60% of all AR wounds.

But here’s the real issue which needs to be understood.  Of all the patients who came into the ER with a gun wound from which they were suffering but were still alive, only suicide claimed more than 10% of those victims; for everyone else getting to the ER alive with a gun wound meant at least a 9 out of 10 chance of being saved.  What is the type of weapon which suicide victims are more than likely to choose?  Turns out that more suicides are attempted with hunting rifles than with anything else!

This is a very serious finding and one that needs more serious discussion in order to be better understood. Because in thinking about gun violence, we usually consider hunting accidents to be nothing more than the fact that in order to hunt you usually have to use a gun. No different than using a parachute to do skydiving and maybe the chute fails to open up. But if gun suicides are 2/3 of all gun fatalities and the weapon of choice is a bolt-action rifle which only holds 4-5 rounds, is any kind of gun less lethal than any other kind?

Kudos to Ladd Everitt for alerting us to this study.

 

What Happens When Someone Turns In Their Guns.

What is it about guns that sometimes brings out the absolute worst, most debased forms of human behavior? On the one hand we have gun owners who decide to check into a hotel, take a room on the 32nd floor, and then fire hundreds of rounds into a concert-going crowd to see how many people they can kill. On the other hand, when the word gets around on social media that someone voluntarily got rid of his guns because of what happened in Vegas on October 1st, that individual is subject to a barrage of the most vile, disgusting and stupid online attacks that could be imagined, up to and including threats on his life.

LV2            I’m not making this up.  Last week a resident of Phoenix, Jonathan Pring, turned in a pistol and a rifle to the Phoenix PD and then made the mistake of putting up a post on Facebook in which he stuck a video of the guns being given to the cops along with a statement that he was taking this step because of the shooting at the Mandalay Bay.  Within hours, he began receiving countless insults, profanities and even threats to his business and his life, with such comments as “someone needs to go shoot this idiot and make him wish he could have defended himself,” being not all that crazy compared to others he received. And this particular comment came from a self-described three-percenter who, of course, makes a point of telling everyone how patriotic she is on her own Facebook page.

What I find interesting about these online outbursts, and I am a target of such attacks all the time, is that such activity often reflects the degree to which much of the chatter on social media is nothing more than the attempt by childish minds (regardless of the age of the body in which this mind is contained) to outdo one another in terms of who can say something more offensive than what the previous post actually said.  And frequently these unreconstructed idiots belong to social media groups which basically exist to allow all the members to engage in this one-upmanship behavior by identifying and targeting individuals who express a contrary point of view.

On the other hand, what really bothered me about the reaction to Pring’s principled and selfless decision to turn his guns in after the Las Vegas rampage was not the fact that his online video attracted some gun-rights crazies to crawl out from under their rocks. Much more disturbing was the fact that his actions were basically ignored by the gun violence prevention (GVP) community who should have been spreading the news of his decision as far and as wide as they could.

If I had a nickel for every time that some GVP advocate or influencer complains about the ‘power,’ of the NRA without mentioning the degree to which opposition to the NRA on social media is so tepid and weak. When some deputy sheriff from Podunk makes a statement about how he supports concealed-carry, the NRA shouts out the message from here to kingdom come. But here’s a guy who made a remarkable statement about the risk of legal gun ownership and the GVP responds to his message with a big yawn. Shouldn’t the Brady Campaign invite Jonathan Pring to come to DC and accept an award? Shouldn’t Gabby and Mark fly out to meet with him? God knows they go everywhere else.

If GVP is ever going to reverse the continued growth of support for gun ‘rights,’ even among people who don’t own guns, their activists must become much more aggressive about using social media to promote their point of view. The video posted by Jonathan Pring showing him giving his guns to the cops should have been the featured post on every GVP Facebook site. And that’s the way you reach out to a wider audience rather than continuing to talk only to folks who already agree with what you say.

 

Do More Guns Equal Less Crime?

In 1998 John Lott published More Guns, Less Crime, which has become both an intellectual totem for the pro-gun gang and a harbinger of doom for folks who believe we need to do more to control guns. Lott argued that as more Americans owned and carried guns that violent crime, homicide in particular, went down because criminals realized they might be going up against someone with a gun and therefore shifted to non-violent criminality (larceny, burglary,) in response to more people being legally armed.

lott             Before going further into the hullabaloo surrounding Lott’s work, let me say that he and I share something of an academic kinship insofar as we both have published books with The University of Chicago Press. So although we disagree strongly on many issues involving guns, our arguments are couched within accepted academic norms and never flow over into personal attacks; I wish I could say the same about some of the other voices raised in disagreement with his work.

The problem I have with Lott’s thesis is that it rests on an untested assumption about the nature of crime, namely, that people who use guns to injure others will pause, think and consider the situation rationally before pulling out the old banger and firing away. Despite what Lott says about the shortcomings of FBI data which shows that most gun homicides occur between people who know each other to some personal degree, I find myself still more convinced by the Lester Adelson’s statement that: “With its peculiar lethality, a gun converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing.” After plowing through Adelson’s classic, thousand-page textbook on forensic homicide, I think he knew what he was talking about.

On the other hand, Lott’s work has been severely criticized by academic researchers whose published rebuttals could probably run several feet in my personal library except that most of them can be found in various liberal blogs, so simply bookmarking them in my browser saves me a lot of shelf space. What these critics tend in the main to argue is that either Lott’s data is unrepresentative or that his statistical models aren’t sufficient, or that he misreads his own data, or a combination of all three.

There’s only one little problem with the entire corpus of anti-Lott work, namely, none of his critics have done any primary research at all whose results might allow them to advance a different thesis as to why Americans seem increasingly positive about using a gun for self-defense. What we hear again and again is that a majority of gun owners now claim that the primary reason they own a gun is to protect themselves and others, but I have yet to see a single survey which asks these same respondents to explain why they decided that the best way to defend themselves from crime was by owning a gun.

Even the other academic researcher who helped create the public discussion about using guns for self-defense, Gary Kleck, has published research which shows that in many circumstances using a gun for self-defense in a criminal assault is basically no more effective than making a phone call or just opening your mouth. And what we do know is that the number of people who actually use a legally-owned gun to defend themselves from criminals runs from scant to none.

Lott’s academic critics have not shown the slightest interest in trying to figure out what Nassim Taleb brilliantly calls the ‘Black Swan’ effect among gun owners, namely, the existence of an idea which may or may not have any reality behind it at all. And until people who honestly want to see an end to gun violence tackle this issue on its own terms, it will simply be impossible to craft a message about gun violence that gun owners will understand. With all due respect to Lott’s many critics, running batches of numbers through different statistical models is child’s play compared to figuring out why we humans believe and act the way they do.

We Still Don’t Know What Happened In Vegas. So What?

We are now going on Week Four since the terrible, terrible event in Las Vegas and we don’t know any more about what happened beyond what we knew ten minutes after the shooting stopped, namely, the name of the guy who stuck a gun out of the window and began blasting away. Oh, I forgot, the LVPD is conducting their own ‘internal’ investigation and the management of Mandalay Bay is also trying to figure out how come it took private and public security more than fifteen minutes to get up to the 32nd floor after they were notified that someone was lying in the hall with a bullet in his leg.

LV2             The Connecticut State Police took nearly a year to issue their official report on what happened at Sandy Hook. The Governor’s report about Columbine was released more than two years after Klebold and Harris walked into the high school and began shooting the place up and detonating a few bombs. Have you even heard about the formation of any kind of official group to study and explain what happened on October 1st?

As the continued spiral of mass shootings appears to be swirling in an ever-widening circle (more than one per day so far this year) I notice that the same arguments about how to identify people who might start gunning everyone down are once again restating the same risk factors that we have known for the last twenty or so years. The latest version can be found in a commentary by our friend Garen Wintemute, who says that predictors of gun violence include “abuse of alcohol and controlled substances, acute injury, a history of violence (including a suicide attempt), poorly controlled severe mental illness, an abusive partner, and serious life stressors.”

The problem with Wintemute’s argument, unfortunately, is that those same predictors have been used to identify people at risk for any kind of violent behavior, and since only 7% of the people arrested for aggravated assault used a gun, how come the other 93% weren’t attempting to inflict serious injury in the same way? You can’t tell me that only 75,000 out of one million aggravated assaults occurred with a gun because it’s hard to get your hands on a gun. Give me a break, okay?

On the other hand, it occurs to me that maybe we really shouldn’t worry about learning the facts about Las Vegas and here’s the reasons why. First of all, folks who believe that we should have open access to all the guns we want to own don’t base their arguments on anything which happens to be true. Remember what Trump said the other day when he accused his predecessor of never calling the families of dead service members, an accusation which turned out to be totally untrue? He said, “That’s what I was told.” Know what? If you ask the average member of Gun-nut Nation how he knows that armed citizens prevent millions of crimes every year you’ll get the exact, same response – I was told. If I had a nickel for everybody who has wandered into my gun shop over the last 17 years and begins lamenting our state’s ‘tough’ gun laws by saying, “Someone told me….”

The other reason we really don’t need to know any more facts about what happened in Vegas on October 1st is because not a single fact would change what is the basic takeaway from the event, namely, that someone decided to see how many people he could kill by using what the small-arms industry refers to as a ‘modern sporting gun.’ Now of course the story, not yet actually shown to be true (here we go again with the search for facts) is that by sticking a bump-stock on a semi-auto rifle, Paddock was no longer shooting a ‘modern sporting gun.’

But the truth is he was never shooting a ‘sporting rifle’ because there’s nothing sporting about shooting human beings with any kind of gun.

How Come We Believe Stuff About Guns Which Simply Isn’t True?

In 1960 Gallup conducted a national poll which asked the following question: “Do you think there should or should not be a law that would ban the possession of pistols and revolvers, except by the police and other authorized persons?” Had such a law then been passed, it would have brought the United States into line with just about every other advanced country and might have saved as many as 600,000 lives.

mass             It’s also accurate to say that intentional, non-fatal gun injuries over the last fifty-five years may have ended up around 3 million, and these numbers prove there was every good reason for public health researchers to study what Catherine Kristoffel calls the ‘endemic’ nature of gun violence, with works by Kellerman and Hemenway (among others) demonstrating a clear link between elevated levels of gun homicide/suicide and access to guns. Despite the continued campaign by Gun-nut Nation to argue that the benefits of gun ownership far outweigh the risks, the evidence that open access to handguns is a fundamental factor in explaining the 3.5 million deaths and injuries since the 1960’s is compelling and true.

The problem with this argument, however, is that it might be considered valid by researchers and public policy advocates, but somehow this idea hasn’t been picked up by the average person because the six out of ten Americans who supported a ban on handguns in 1960 has now dropped down to less than one in four. And since one in three Americans now believe that having gun is a better way to protect yourself than not having a gun, obviously even lots of people who don’t own guns don’t buy the idea that owning a gun increases risk.

How does the consensus on gun risk within the medical and public health communities somehow not circulate within the public at large? The usual argument is that the ‘gun lobby,’ particularly the NRA, has been a powerful and effective voice in promoting pro-gun sentiment, thanks as well to a compliant Republican Party and a guy name Scalia who used to sit on the Supreme Court. All fine and well except for one little thing. The NRA may inundate its membership with emails, videos and offers for all kinds of crap you can buy, but generally speaking, the messaging doesn’t go out to people who don’t own guns. And since less than half of Americans own guns, obviously non-gun owners who should be receptive to the idea that guns are a risk aren’t getting told.

In 1969 Franklin Zimring published a government-funded research study, Firearms & Violence in American Life. As far as I am concerned, this 147-page document has never been surpassed by any subsequent work on gun risk, nor is it mentioned in any of the recent gun-risk discussions within or without public health. Zimring’s calculation about the number of guns that were floating around the United States before the government started keeping accurate records post-1968, remains the estimate on which even the work of pro-gun advocates like Gary Kleck is based.

According to Zimring’s careful research, there were slightly more than 100 million modern guns owned by civilians in 1968. But of this total number, less than 40 million were handguns, about which Zimring says: “When the number of handguns increases, gun violence increases, and where there are fewer guns, there is less gun violence.” And Zimring said this in 1969, before countless studies by public health researchers then said and continue to say the exact, same thing.

I know all the reasons why the GVP community believes that advocating a ban on handguns is a dead end. It’s a no-win position, there’s the 2nd Amendment, blah, blah, blah and blah. But the GVP narrative should be based on what is true, not what is believed to be true. Because what a majority of Americans now believe about handgun risk simply isn’t true, and advocacy must inform based on truth, regardless of whether or not it will work.

Do We Really All Support Background Checks?

If I had a nickel for every gun violence prevention (GVP) advocate and/or gun violence researchers who believes that the American public is not so polarized about controlling guns, I would be somewhere at my golf club and not sitting in my office writing, doing emails, answering the phone and doing all the things I do in order to keep my checkbook occasionally in balance. And this GVP belief in the ability to work with the ‘other side’ stems primarily from endless surveys which show that even gun owners and/or Republicans (usually the same thing) support comprehensive background checks.

polls2             The latest pronouncement in this respect comes from one of our leading gun researchers, Garen Wintemute, who is now overseeing a $5 million grant from the State of California to fund research that has been left undone since the CDC stopped funding gun violence research back in 1998. As ‘proof’ that we are not so divided over the issue of background checks, I quote Wintemute from a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times: “90% of the general population supports (background checks for all firearms purchases), 80% of gun owners support it and 70% of self-reported NRA members support it. Things are not as polarized as they seem.”

I’m assuming that Wintemute took these numbers from the Pew poll published back in June which found, among other things, that 19% of all gun owners were members of the NRA. If this were true, the $165 million they pulled in from dues in 2015 would be chump change compared to what they would really rack if the 19% ‘NRA members’ were paying annual dues. Try about $250 million, okay?

But since the Pew researchers made no effort to ask people why they said they were members of America’s oldest civil rights organization, for the moment let’s accept the number as true even if it’s not. Here’s a bigger truth. The NRA has come out officially and publicly against any expansion of background checks. Period. No compromise whatsoever. So what the Pew researchers should have asked, and perhaps one of Wintemute’s research colleagues will get around to asking at some point is this: ‘If you favor background checks, would you drop your NRA membership because the organization is opposed to background checks?’  Or perhaps instead of that question, the researchers would ask something along the lines like this: ‘Would you vote for someone whose stance on issues included expanding background checks?’

Remember a political candidate named Hillary Clinton? She used a very strong GVP argument to knock Bernie out of the box. The only problem is that the same argument didn’t work in the general election worth a damn. I’m not saying that Trump won the election only because of his stance on 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ What I am saying is that asking the average person if they favor expanded background checks doesn’t really tell you very much about how that individual will really line up and be counted when a new gun law is being debated in the jurisdiction where that individual happens to live.

I’m also not saying that gun owners are ignorant of the importance of background checks for the transfer a gun from one set of hands to another set of hands. Nor am I saying they are lying when they tell a survey-taker that they support expanded background checks. But asking someone to respond to a specific question about guns doesn’t really tell you how the answer to that question lines up with other thoughts the same person holds about guns and how best to use public policies to diminish the violence caused by guns.

The same gun owners who told Pew they favored comprehensive background checks also said they wanted teachers to carry guns in schools and in case you don’t remember, arming teachers was the NRA’s response following the massacre at Sandy Hook.

If only the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ could be measured by responses to a single question in a poll.