Who Owns All The Guns? We Don’t Really Know.

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One of the long-standing issues in the gun debate has been to calculate the number of guns actually floating around the United States.  This is an important number, if only because public health researchers have published very credible research which indicates that our elevated gun-violence numbers are directly related to a civilian gun arsenal which may now number more than 300 million guns.

traffic            We have a pretty good idea about the number of guns added to the civilian stash over the last 25 years thanks to the manufacturing reports published by the ATF.  And while this report is based on the number of guns made, not the number which the gun makers actually sell, it’s not necessarily an accurate number, but for purposes of this column it will do.  Since 1998 we also know more or less exactly how many new guns move into private hands thanks to the monthly background check numbers published by the FBI.

The real problem in coming up with a valid number for the total stock of guns is twofold: first, we have no idea how many guns that were manufactured between 1900 and 1990 were actually sold, and we also don’t know how many guns that were sold between 1900 and today are still floating around. Guns last a long time, that’s for sure. But they also break, they get lost, they get thrown away after Grandpa dies and Grandma moves into the nursing home; counting the civilian ‘gun stock’ is an inexact science at best.

Our friends at Harvard and Northeastern have recently come up with a pretty solid number based on the survey they conducted which at some point will be published by Russell Sage. Their current number is 265 million, which they derived by estimating overall totals from answers to their survey, then deducting a percentage for loss, wear and tear. Until some research group comes up with a new approach to figuring out the size of America’s gun arsenal, I’m content to stick with what the Harvard-Northeastern group would like to believe.

On the other hand, believe or not, if we are trying to understand the cause and effect relationship between the number of guns that are privately owned and the 115,000+ deaths and injuries caused by guns every year, I am yet to be persuaded that figuring out the number of guns in civilian hands is the right way to go. Because although 115,000 gun deaths and injuries is a shockingly-high number, it happens to represent a tiny fraction of the number of people who either own guns or put guns to the wrong use. And moreover, at least 80% of those deaths and injuries occur because someone shoots a handgun at themselves or someone else.

In addition to trying to figure out handgun ownership as opposed to ownership of all guns, there’s another problem which makes any attempt to develop public policies based on restricting or diminishing the number of privately-owned guns a risky business at best. At least two-thirds of the gun deaths and injuries that occur every year are criminal events, and even with our elevated gun-suicide rates, if gun crimes didn’t occur, our overall gun-violence rate would be no higher than the rest of the OECD.

How many of these 75,000 or more homicides and aggravated assaults are committed with ‘illegal’ guns? How many people possess a gun even though they cannot, under law, put their hands on a gun?  We have absolutely no idea. The NRA doesn’t miss an opportunity to consign all gun violence to ‘street thugs,’ but the truth is that we have no evidence-based research which necessarily proves the Boys from Fairfax to be wrong.

We have a pretty good idea about how many guns are legally owned – the information is found in all those FBI-NICS forms that everyone who buys a gun from a dealer has to fill out. But if we want to reduce gun violence, shouldn’t we try and learn something about the gun owners who don’t fill out those forms?

 

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

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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.

 

 

Does FBI-NICS Tell Us How Many Guns Are Sold By Gun Dealers? I’m Not Sure.

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What’s that about you learn something new every day? Well I just learned something from the NRA about the NICS-FBI background check system and if I didn’t know about this before today, I guarantee you that maybe nobody else in the GVP community knows it either.  And what I learned today is particularly important because I learned it just after reading the new Pew gun report which claims that both gun owners and non-gun owners support FBI-NICS background checks for ‘secondary,’ i.e., personal transfers of guns.

nics             It’s all well and good that 87% of non-gun owners and 77% of gun owners favor more comprehensive background checks. But if you live in one of 26 states on an official list published by the ATF and possess either a concealed-carry license or, in some cases, a gun license, you don’t have to undergo a FBI-NICS background check when you buy any gun at all. Think I’m making it up?  Click here.

I never knew this because my gun shop happens to be located in one of the 24 states which doesn’t exempt any over-the-counter purchase from going through NICS. And in fact my state not only requires dealers to get a NICS approval before the gun is transferred, but also requires the dealer to verify through a website link that the customer’s state-issued gun license is also valid at the time the transfer is made. Do many other states which exempt license-holders from NICS have a system which requires real-time verification of the state license when a gun is sold?  I doubt it.  That’s about the last expense that a legislature in Georgia or West Virginia is going to add to the state budget.

Right now there are somewhere between 12 and 14 million active concealed-carry permits in the United States. Florida leads the list with over a million but the Gunshine State does not exempt any gun purchase from NICS.  On the other hand, states like Kentucky and Louisiana do exempt CCW-holders from NICS, and together these two states alone have issued over 300,000 concealed-carry permits.  Kentucky’s an interesting state because they use the NICS system every month to check whether any resident who has a gun license shows up as a ‘bad boy’ in any state. Last month the NICS system ran almost 375,000 such checks for Kentucky, but state residents also purchased almost 8,700 handguns. And since CCW-holders are exempted from NICS checks in Kentucky, even if someone’s name showed up on the NICS state license check, how would a gun shop owner know that the guy standing in front of him couldn’t legally buy a gun? Last month more than 10,000 handguns were sold in Louisiana and there’s no indication that NICS checked the validity of the 136,000 active Louisiana CCW permits at all.

I just did a quick eyeball on the number of concealed-carry permits issued by states which exempt the holders of those permits from undergoing NICS background checks, and the total is somewhere between 5.6 and 5.7 million, give or take a few.  How many handguns were purchased last month in these same states with background checks? Somewhere around 185,000, give or take a few thousand here or there (sorry, but I’m not going to waste time adding up every single one.)

The folks who go to the trouble of getting a concealed-carry license in many cases also tend to be the folks who buy lots of guns. Kind of goes with the territory, if you know what I mean. Is there a chance that the numbers for NICS checks in these exempt states may undercount the actual number of guns sold in those states by as much as half? Yup, there is.

I’m not saying that CCW-license holders are a threat to safety, I’ll let the Violence Policy Center make that argument with their ‘concealed killers’ report. What I am saying is that there may be a lot more guns being added to the civilian arsenal each month, and the one thing we know for sure about gun violence is that more guns equals more gun violence, period, the end.

 

 

Want To Stop Gun Trafficking? Just Enforce The Law.

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Like everyone else who is concerned about gun violence, I have been listening to the argument about expanding FBI-NICS background checks to secondary sales for more than twenty years. And much of the argument from the gun violence prevention (GVP) community falls back on the assumption that if all gun transactions could be traced, this would cut down, if not almost entirely eliminate ‘straw sales,’ i.e., the purchase of a gun by one person who knows he or she is really buying the gun for someone else.

laws             Now in fact we do not have a single study which compares gun violence rates in any state before and after universal background checks were put in place, and the oft-cited and excellent Hopkins study which shows a spike in Missouri gun homicides after mandatory background checks were abolished was based on permit-to-purchase (PTP) licensing, which is a much more thorough vetting process than running a background check through the FBI.

But when GVP advocates talk about straw sales, they are usually referring to organized efforts that connect straw purchases to gun trafficking, which involves someone buying a bunch of guns in a shop in one state, then stuffing them into the trunk of a car and delivering them to a street-seller somewhere else.  Back in February, the cops arrested 24 people who were buying guns in Virginia, then taking them up for resale in New York. One of the entrepreneurs told another confederate that he could take advantage of ‘weak’ laws in Virginia, walk into a gun store and buy 50 guns every day.

There’s only one little problem with this narrative, and the problem is something known as ATF Form 3310.  I’m willing to bet you that most of the people who read this column will have no idea what I am referring to because I have never seen it mentioned in any discussion about straw sales within the GVP.  But this form happens to be what every licensed dealer must fill out and immediately submit to the ATF if someone walks into their shop and purchases more than one handgun in any period of less than six days. A copy of the form also has to be sent to the police chief in the town where the gun shop is located, which means that within 24 hours after someone walks into a shop anywhere in the United States and walks out with more than one handgun, both the local police and the feds know the name and address of the purchaser, along with a description and serial number of each gun, and all the other relevant background information of the purchaser (DOB, race, ID, etc.) which is entered on the FBI-NICS background-check form known as the 4473.

So the idea that guns which are then ‘trafficked’ here and there are floating out the door of various gun shops without any controls over who buys them is simply not true. And the kid who bragged to his friend that he could easily buy 50 guns every day in Virginia may have thought he was describing a state with loose gun laws; in fact, what he was really describing was a state in which neither the local cops or the ATF are doing their job.

The ATF loves to give out all kinds of data on how many guns they trace, how many gun shops they inspect, blah, blah, blah and blah. But since the beginning of this year there have been slightly more than 100,000 background checks for the purchase of multiple guns, and I guarantee you that many of those transactions involved multiple handguns whose over-the-counter transfers aren’t tracked by the ATF at all.

I’m not saying that we should step back from the demand to institute background checks on all movement of guns. But there already exists a mechanism to make it more difficult for guns to get into the wrong hands and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be enforcing existing laws particularly when implementing stronger gun regulations probably won’t get done.

A New Law That Will Make Assault Rifles Easier To Own.

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I want to make a suggestion to my friends in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community and it goes like this. I think that every year on the anniversary of Sandy Hook, or maybe on the Wear Orange day, or maybe on the Concert for America day, the GVP should get together and give an award to the public figure who has done the most that year to promote gun violence. Maybe the award would go to a President, maybe to a Detroit police chief, maybe to someone who heads a pro-gun advocacy group, the usual suspects list is obviously quite long.

AR2              But for the inaugural award I want to nominate Representative Rob Bishop (R-UT) who has just introduced a bill called – get this – the “Lawful Purpose and Self Defense Act,” which has to rank as the single most dangerous piece of federal legislation which has ever been crafted to increase the violence caused by guns.  The bill is H.R. 2060, and I’ll get serious now and tell GVP that they better get their sh*t together and start working against this measure right now. Because if GVP doesn’t shove this bill up you know where and it becomes law, what happened at Sandy Hook and The Pulse will look like child’s play compared to the violence that a statute like this could cause.

What this bill basically does is prohibit the ATF from determining what kinds of weapons can be imported from overseas based on whether any particular gun meets the criteria for being ‘sporting’ or not. And if the ATF determines that a gun isn’t a ‘sporting’ arm, then it doesn’t come in. And what this means is that AR-style rifles, a.k.a assault rifles, don’t come in. You can import some foreign parts and assemble the gun over here, but those weapons can only be sold if they also contain a certain number of US-made parts.  Here’s the bottom line: if this bill becomes law, we will be flooded with cheap AR-15s and AK-47s, along with any other type of gun that could be used for ‘self defense.’

Now you might think that the attempt by Gun-nut Nation to pass a national concealed-carry law is a more serious threat to community safety and peace. But I actually tend to agree with the Gun-nut gang that there really isn’t a connection between gun violence rates and the fact that someone who has a clean background record is walking around with a gun. The connection is a little more incidental than whether CCW-holders commit crimes, because what’s really behind the push to validate national CCW is the expectation that such a law would increase the overall sale of guns. And the more guns that are out there, the more that get stolen or lost, the more that wind up in the wrong hands, you know the drill.

Which is exactly what would happen if every Tom, Dick and Harry manufacturer of assault weapons anywhere in the world could ship their products over here. Domestic ‘black gun’ manufacturers like S&W, Rock River and Bushmaster would drop their prices even further, dealers would discount both the guns and the ammo (and by the way, the bill also prevents ATF from deciding whether imported ammunition is ‘sporting’ or not) and the idea that an AR-15 or an AK-47 is a ‘defensive’ weapon would gain the upper hand.

Leave it to my friends in Fairfax, of course, to push this terrible piece of legislation by saying something which simply isn’t true, namely, that the ‘core’ purpose of the 2nd Amendment, as stated in the 2008 Heller decision, is self defense. What Heller says is that Americans have the Constitutional ‘right’ to keep a handgun in their homes to defend themselves; there’s not a single word about keeping an AR around the house.

I meant what I said that H.R. 2060 is the worst piece of pro-gun legislation ever introduced. Let’s not wait until a bunch of NRA toadies in the People’s House put it up for a vote. It needs to be stopped now.

The Gun Show Loophole Is Much Wider Than What Happens At Shows.

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Once again the argument has erupted within Gun World as to whether or not a gun show ‘loophole’ actually exists.  The NRA, in trying to discredit an ISIS video which tells their followers in America to buy a gun at a show without undergoing a background check, is saying that the so-called ‘loophole’ is a figment of the overactive gun-grabbing imagination.  The GVP is saying that anyone can transact a private gun exchange at a show, and such transfers aren’t covered by any legal requirements at all.  So who’s right and who’s wrong?

gun-sales             The real problem in understanding whether or not the ‘loophole’ exists is the way in which one particular word – dealer – is thrown around whenever we talk about guns. I see this word being misused again and again on both sides of the debate, and it’s the reason why the gun show ‘loophole’ continues to be explained in ways that often don’t make any sense.

Being a gun dealer doesn’t mean that you get up one morning, throw some old piece of junk into the car, and drive down to the local McDonald’s to meet some guy who says he’s going to give you fifty bucks for the gun.  How did you make contact with the guy?  You put an ad in your weekly shopper, or you stuck a notice on a bulletin board at the laundromat, or maybe you mentioned it to the guy sitting next to you at the local VFW club.

The fact that you sell a personally-owned gun to someone else doesn’t make you a ‘dealer’ in guns.  In order to be a gun dealer, according to the ATF, means you have to be “a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms.”  Last year Obama considered issuing an Executive Order which would have imposed a minimum number of guns sold as an additional  criteria for being in the ‘business’ of dealing in guns, but the consideration was as far as he got.

Now the fact is that very few states require a background check prior to transferring any and all guns whether you are a dealer or not. In fact, only eight states have what we call ‘universal’ background checks, although ten other states impose background checks on certain types of transactions, both in terms of the type of gun and where the transaction takes place. If a gun show promoter were to impose a requirement that only licensed dealers could display and sell guns at his shows, he’d better have another gig lined up because he won’t be running more gun shows any time soon.

Back in the 1980’s before guns became such a big, friggin’ deal, myself and a bunch of New York City gun-nut cops used to go to a gun show in Newburgh, N.Y.  The reason we went to that show was because there was always some interesting stuff lying around, and it was understood that you could buy anything ‘on shield;’ i.e., show a badge and that was that.  If you go to a gun show today in New York State, every single transaction requires you to fill out a 4473 background-check form, but who’s to say that you can’t walk outside to the parking lot or drive a block away?

The reason there’s a gun show loophole is that it’s a lot easier to walk past 50 tables and look at hundreds of guns rather than scanning the local shopper where you might see one gun ad or two. It’s not so much that gun shows encourage breaking the law, it’s that there are lots of guns that can be sold without NICS checks sitting in the same place. Which doesn’t mean there’s a gun show loophole because in this country just about anyone can buy a gun any time they want.

If The ATF Believes That Gun Violence Is Caused By Thefts From Gun Shops, The Martians Have Landed At Area 51.

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The ATF, which is the responsible government agency for regulating firearms, has just released another report about its activities which actually obscures more than it explains. But that’s the usual state of affairs with the ATF, a group of bumblers who still haven’t explained how they managed to lose two thousand guns in a sting operation called Fast and Furious that was supposed to uncover a vast manufacturing enterprise to convert AK-47 semi-auto rifles into full-auto machine gun and didn’t turn up even one.

atf              This new ATF report, which covers guns stolen or missing each year, comes out of the same division within the ATF which claims to be “leading in the fight against violent crime and terrorism,” a.k.a. the vaunted National Tracing Center. Let me tell you right now that if the National Tracing Center is what’s protecting us against terrorism, I would strongly urge all the readers of this column to drop whatever else they are doing, immediately start building their underground bunkers and stock their bunkers with a generous assortment of Glenn Beck’s freeze-dried food. And don’t forget to load up the bunker with an AK-47 and a couple of thousand rounds.

The last thing the ATF is going to do with its tracing activities is protect us or themselves from anything, unless the ‘anything’ happens to be a cut to their operational budget. They can talk all they want about how hard it is to conduct those hundreds of thousands of traces they conduct on ‘crime guns’ each year, but in fact, less than 20% of the traces they conduct each year have anything to do with serious crimes. For that matter, all the ATF’s whining about how their hands are tied because they can’t go beyond the first transfer of a gun is simply not true at all, because most gun shops sell as many used as they sell new guns, which means that all the transfers of previously-sold guns can be traced as well.

But let’s go back to the stolen/missing report which the ATF has just issued for 2016. The data represents what is reported to the ATF by federally-licensed dealers, but the information comes from the ATF in two very different ways. The reports on guns that have been stolen are usually supplied by dealers themselves who are victims of some kind of criminal activity, usually a burglary, which results in a loss of guns. Occasionally there’s a really spectacular burglary event, like the idiot in Janesville, WI, who allegedly stole more than 30 guns out of a gun shop and then sent mailed a threat to President Trump. But most of these thefts are a gun here or a gun there, and are frequently the work of a gun shop employee who just can’t resist the temptation to make an extra bit of cash.

The guns that are reported ‘missing’ by dealers, on the other hand, are guns for which paperwork can’t be found when the ATF conducts the inspection of a shop.  This doesn’t mean that the guns were stolen or fell into the wrong hands, it just means that the paperwork examined by the ATF can’t be found for a particular transaction, even though the transfer of that particular gun was legal in every respect. My last ATF inspection covered more than 11,000 transfers which occurred in my shop between 2002 and 2013. Know how many transactions ended up being reported as missing? Exactly five.

If the ATF wants to do something about curbing the theft of guns, why don’t they figure out a strategy or at least some messaging to highlight the fact that every year two hundred thousand or more handguns get stolen from private homes? The ATF will immediately tell you that regulating private gun ownership isn’t their legal mandate or their organizational concern. Which is why the agency’s value as regards reducing gun violence is both overstated and misplaced – gun violence is caused by the existence of so many privately-owned guns.

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