Every year about a week into the new year, the FBI publishes a report covering how many NICS background checks were performed the previous year. And while this number doesn’t cover all gun transfers, what we do learn from this data is the number of guns that move from gun dealers to gun owners, which is a very accurate way of determining whether Americans are still in love with their guns.
Gun-nut Nation has been building up expectations about the gun industry’s recovery from the Trump slump for the past several months. At the beginning of December, Fox News crowed that “gun background checks on record to break record in 2019.” And when the year-end numbers came out, the pro-gun noise machine immediately announced with unbridled joy that “2019’s count is the most since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System began in 1998.”
Know the old line about how figures don’t lie but liars sure can figure? What Gun-nut Nation is saying about the health of their beloved industry based on the 2019 FBI-NICS numbers is true, except the truth happens to hide an important detail that completely undercuts the argument about how the gun business is alive and well. And that detail happens to be the fact that more than half of the FBI-NICS checks conducted each month have nothing to do with guns actually being sold or transferred into consumer’s hands. These non-sale checks cover issuing and renewing licenses, taking guns out of pawn, rentals, private sales, all kinds of transactions which, if anything, reflect the extent to which gun ownership is an increasingly regulated activity which goes far beyond retail gun sales. If anything, the increase in NICS checks should be seen not as a sign of gun industry health, but of the degree to which the regulatory environment continues to grow.
What really spurred the slight increase in December gun sales, which were 4% higher in 2019 than what was recorded for December, 2018, was that gun makers, wholesalers and retailers all cut prices in order to bring buyers into the stores. Right now I can walk into a gun shop near me and buy the Smith & Wesson Shield pistol for seventy bucks under the MSRP. That’s a price break? That’s a price collapse.
If and when the Democrats begin narrowing down the field of Presidential candidates looking to grab the brass ring and the chosen candidate decides to push an aggressive anti-gun position as part of his or her campaign, we might see a real upturn in gun sales without the gun industry forcing the issue by cutting prices. But if the issue of gun violence is a function not of gun ownership per se, but guns getting into the ‘wrong’ hands, who cares how many guns are bought and sold as long as the individuals engaging in these transactions never commit any kind of violent behavior with their guns?
If it were only that simple. If we only had a regulatory system which could keep the most lethal consumer product ever developed away from individuals who are either too stupid or too violent to behave properly with a gun. On the other hand, what do we really mean when we talk about behaving properly or responsibly with a gun? Aren’t we really saying that guns should only be used in ways that will negate the possibility of injuring yourself or someone else? If that’s the case, we have a little problem because the whole point of buying a gun like the Smith & Wesson Shield pistol is to use it, when necessary, to hurt someone else.
One way or another, we are going to have to face the fact that many people believe in the notion of ‘virtuous violence,’ meaning that using violence for a good reason (e.g., self-defense) is why they buy a gun. And as long as our approach to regulating guns allows gun makers to appeal to folks who see violence as sometimes being a good thing, we will find ourselves looking for some kind of silver lining in the FBI-NICS numbers each month.