How Can We Stop Guns From Getting Into The Wrong Hands? Simple: Just Stop The Guns.

There’s an elephant sitting largely undisturbed in the GVP living room, and it consists of the 75,000 times each year when someone picks up a gun and uses it to hurt someone else.  In medicine this is referred to as ‘intentional injury/firearm.’  The cops call it an aggravated assault but if the bullet hits a vital spot, then a homicide has occurred.  Either way, these events account for more than two-thirds of all gun injuries, and the number appears to be going up.  For sure it’s going up in places like Chicago and Detroit, where rates have always exceeded national averages for violence caused with guns.

With all due respect to the energy and commitment if GVP activists, I still don’t believe this problem is being addressed at its core.  It’s all well and good to ask the government to expand background checks on private gun sales, or crack down on straw sales, or pass stronger laws against gun trafficking, and I’m not arguing against the utility of such plans; I’m simply saying that none of those strategies attack the root of the problem, and the root is not supply but demand.  Because what all those programs have in common is the belief that if the supply of guns that might end up in the wrong hands is choked off at the point where those guns enter or re-enter the market, this will lead to a smaller number of illegal guns, which will lead to fewer guns getting into the wrong hands, which will lead to less guns being used to inflict injuries on others.

Unfortunately, while we know a lot about the supply side of the argument, we know next to nothing about the demand for guns.  Why do a small percentage of individuals who commit violent acts against others commit these acts by using guns? According to the CDC, there were 2.3 million intentional, violence-related injuries in 2013, of which 78,000, or 3%, were caused by guns. So while we focus our thoughts and concerns on the 3%, the fact is that 97% of people who commit violent acts choose not to use a gun.  And I simply don’t believe that the motives which explain that choice can be assumed to reflect difficulties in getting hold of a gun.  Particularly because in neighborhoods where most gun violence occurs, even the younger kids will tell you that a gun can easily be acquired in 24 hours or less.

The problem with choking off guns at the point of supply is that most such policies would require some change in behavior of law-abiding sellers or buyers of guns.  The movie, Making A Killing, includes a segment about Chuck’s Gun Shop, out of whose inventory comes many guns that end up being used in Chicago crimes.  Know what happened after Chuck’s promised to be more vigilant in checking who was buying their guns?  Gun violence in Chicago went up.  I know, I know.  There are plenty of other gun shops located close enough to the Windy City where the bad guys can get guns.  That’s exactly my point.  As long as guns are legal commerce, don’t ask me how, don’t ask me why, the market will find some way to satisfy demand.

Back in the 16th Century, the French monarchy imposed a very strict tariff on salt, the gabelle, in order to raise funds for the always-depleted royal treasury. Know what happened?  Salt smuggling became the #1 non-farming occupation in Southern France. It’s a mistake which we make all the time to differentiate between the ‘legal’ market and the ‘illegal’ or ‘black’ market, because in fact they operate exactly the same way.  A market, legal or illegal, is created whenever there is an exchange of products for money and regulating the former may have little or no impact on the latter.

Of course there’s one infallible way to regulate both markets when it comes to guns.  And we all know what that way is.

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Is Gun Violence Committed By Bad Guys? I’m Not Sure

Will more gun control reduce gun violence? This may sound like a stupid question but I feel compelled to ask after reading a very good article about Shannon Watts and Everytown in the current issue of Mother Jones.  Entitled, “Mothers in Arms,” Mark Follman perceptively explains why the Moms constitute a threat to the hegemony of the NRA, given the extent to which the Everytown message resonates both with gun and non-gun owners who together may be looking for an alternative to the stridency and combativeness of Wayne LaPierre and his friends.

So let’s play a little parlor game and assume that Shannon is able to muscle aside the NRA and actually get some “meaningful” gun control laws passed, like expanded background checks, tightened licensing procedures, “safe” guns and so forth.  In other words, making it more difficult for the ‘bad guys’ to get their hands on guns.

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There’s only one little problem.  How do we know that gun violence is committed by people who shouldn’t be able to get their hands on guns?  After all, we agree that the 2nd Amendment allows law-abiding Americans to own guns. We also agree, more or less, on the legal definition of ‘law-abiding.’  That being the case, how do we know that most of those 31,000 deaths and 60,000-70,000 injuries attributed to guns each year are committed by people who don’t meet the legal requirements for owning or possessing a gun?

We don’t have any data on how many of the 20,000 people kill themselves with guns actually have the legal right to own the gun in question, but I’m willing to bet that most victims of gun suicides, even teen suicides, used a gun that was either legally owned by themselves or by another family member or close friend.  And don’t delude yourselves into thinking for one second that someone, even a kid who wants to commit suicide can’t break open one of those crummy, ten-dollar gun locks or learn the combination of the family safe.

As for the 11,000 gun homicides, it’s easy just to assume they are all ‘bad guys’ who shouldn’t have been able to get their hands on a gun, but that’s a judgement made after the fact and frankly, distorts the whole question of how and why guns are used to commit capital crimes.  More than three-quarters of all homicides arise out of circumstances that are not necessarily criminal in nature at all.  This includes all kinds of domestic situations, like children killed by babysitters, as well as the run-of-the-mill household arguments, disputes between friends, spousal and non-spousal IPV and the like.  Only 20% of all homicides occur between perpetrators and victims who don’t know each other, whereas in 4 out of 5 cases they involve family members, neighbors, friends, and even an occasional employee and boss.

Not only do homicides involve a familiarity between perpetrator and victim more frequently than any other type of violent crime including rape, but the fact that someone pulls out a gun and shoots someone else doesn’t automatically mean that the perpetrator is a criminal (a ‘bad guy’) whereas the person who gets shot (a ‘good guy’) is simply the victim of a crime.  The most eminent American criminologist, Marvin Wolfgang, once wrote, “In many cases, especially in criminal homicide, the victim is often a major contributor to the criminal act.”  And while aggravated assaults with weapons involve two strangers roughly half the time, there’s no reason to believe that in the other 50% of cases Wolfgang’s admonition to look beyond traditional penal categories wouldn’t hold true as well.

Both pro-gun and anti-gun advocates subscribe to the idea that it’s those ‘bad guys’ who commit violence with guns.  But how many of those bad guys are simply people who use guns stupidly or impulsively but otherwise have every legal right to own a gun?  I’m all in favor of reasonable measures for reducing gun violence, but I hope we understand that the issue can’t just be reduced to good and bad, right and wrong. Things just aren’t that simple.