Don’t Just Fix NICS, Fix The ATF.

Every time rational and realistic folks try to expand background checks to secondary transfers or sales, the Congressional NRA Caucus jumps up and says,’before we change anything in the NICS system, we need to fix what currently exists.’ Which for a long time was convenient dodge to prevent any expansion of background checks at all. But after it came out that the Sutherland Springs shooter was able to legally buy guns because the Air Force never notified NICS that the guy served stockade-time for beating up his wife, the fix-NICS bandwagon has started rolling along, pushed in part by Senator Tom Cornyn, who happens to be one of the NRA’s best friends.

ATF logoNow it appears that the sudden concern about fixing NICS on the part of the NRA congressional delegation has morphed itself into a bill that will also let every red-blooded American walk around from here to high heaven carrying a gun. I suspect this national concealed-carry will die a natural death when it reaches the Senate, ditto any change in NICS. But if and when some NICS fix actually takes place, I’m hoping that my friends in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community will put some pressure on Congress to fix not just who has to send data to the FBI call center, but how the ATF uses the NICS system as well. Because it really doesn’t matter how much data we stick into the NICS system if the regulatory agency which allegedly uses that data to deal with gun violence doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

For 50 years the ATF has been saying that their hands are ‘tied’ because they can only get information from the initial transfer of a gun. Which means that once a gun leaves the shop after the purchaser passes a NICS background check, the ATF can’t figure out what happened between the time the gun was first purchased and when it was picked up in a crime. And since the average time between the initial transfer and when a gun is picked up at a crime scene is more than 10 years (what the ATF calls Time To Crime or TTC) God knows who owned the gun or how it got from a gun shop to where it was used in the commission of a crime.

There’s only one little problem with this scenario – it’s not true.  When the ATF says it can only look at the information which tells them who first bought the gun, they are simply lying, which means they know something to be true and consciously choose to say something else. Why is the ATF lying? Because if you walk into the average gun shop, you’ll discover that 30% to 40% of the inventory consists of used guns. I know a retail dealer whose shops is 10 miles from my shop. He only sells consignment guns; his entire inventory doesn’t cost him one red cent. Which means that every gun he sells has been sold over the counter at least one other time, and it’s not unusual for a gun to come in and out of a gun shop multiple times.

Here’s the point: every time a used gun comes back to a gun shop and is sold to someone else, the dealer creates two records of the gun’s in-and-out movement in documentation which is owned by the ATF.  That’s right – I have to keep an up-to-date listing of each gun in my Acquisition and Disposition list, and when the gun is sold I also have to create a maintain the background check form known as the Form 4473. The ATF can come into my shop at any time without any notice at all and inspect every, single entry in the A&D book as well as every 4473 form.

Could the ATF ask me to look up the particulars on any gun whether I sold it once or multiple times? Of course they can but they don’t because, after all, why put everyone through the hassle of looking up a gun transaction when you’re not sure of when that transaction actually took place?  The ATF knows the date when a gun was initially shipped from a wholesaler to me. But they don’t necessarily know when the first buyer of that gun brought it back or took it to another shop and sold it or traded it for a different gun.

The ATF can pat itself on the back all it wants about the great job the National Tracing Center performs in helping law enforcement agencies deal with crime. But the truth is they do a half-ass job at best and fixing NICS without fixing ATF is nothing other than closing the barn door after the animals have gotten out.



Khalil Spencer – A Few Things I Would Say To An Open-minded Gun Owner.

Like Mike, I find myself straddling the gun violence prevention/gun enthusiast line. Actually, I don’t see this as a line in the sand at all. The battleground, sadly, seems to be between many gun violence prevention folks who want additional controls on guns and gun rights absolutists who see every attempt at the control of gun violence as a slippery slope to loss of gun rights. So here are a few comments I would make to anyone who would ask me how I think about this.

trafficFirst, the matter of firearms themselves. These are intrinsically hazardous objects whose purpose is to shoot holes in things. Firearms evolved as warfighting tools and as sporting arms second. Their main purpose, my Zen-like moments at the range notwithstanding, is to kill, whether it is human beings on opposing sides of a battlefield, an intruder threatening a family, or this winter’s meat. In a civil society that has evolved from a few million people in a rural environment to a largely urban landscape of over three hundred million people, the roles and influence of guns on society has obviously changed. Indeed, although the Second Amendment and historical cultural values have provided Americans a much broader range of gun rights and widespread ownership than in most developed countries, an interest balance between rights and responsibilities, including government oversight of the keeping and bearing of privately owned firearms, is reasonable. There is a wide divergence of opinion on where to draw the line on government oversight, i.e., the notion of what constitutes “infringement” but I’ll leave that elaboration to anyone who wants to read Heller v District of Columbia or Adam Winkler’s compelling read “Gunfight”. Briefly, gun control has always existed in America. Heller provides broad latitude, based on historical analysis as well as the Second Amendment, for it to continue.

Secondly, as arms are by their nature dangerous, if not unusual, government has a compelling interest in their oversight. Historically, we have regulated handguns, especially concealed public carry (see Gunfight), and dangerous and unusual weapons such as sawed off shotguns or fully automatic rifles. Because auto rifles were heavily regulated by the 1934 National Firearms Act before everyone and their dog owned one, you rarely hear of full auto rifles being used in crimes. They are relatively rare and owned legally by a few people willing to deal with the BATF’s requirements as enthusiasts. Meanwhile, increasingly lethal arms such as so-called “assault rifles” were sold on an equal basis to more traditional semiauto and manually-operated rifles since the middle of the last century. The argument that these are no different than traditional sporting rifles as far as their risk to society rings hollow as high capacity, rapid firing rifles were introduced to the military because of their superior firepower.  The WW II soldiers carrying full auto weapons such as the BAR were far more likely to use them to control the battlefield than the soldier with even an M-1, or as James Fallows said in a June, 1981 Atlantic, “…The BAR man, by contrast, had the sense that he could dominate a certain area—“hose it down,” in the military slang—and destroy anyone who happens to be there.”

Why the civilian market should have unfettered access to weapons barely different from those designed to “hose down” a battlefield, without rigorous strings attached, is a good question worth public debate. As I have said on my own North Mesa Mutts blog, I think semiauto vs. selective-fire is a distinction without a difference in this discussion. Millions of these weapons are in private hands and most owned safely (including, presumably, my own Mini-14) but if these weapons continue to be used to mow down people in theatres, schools, and public events, some sort of regulation is inevitable on public safety grounds. Perhaps, since so many are out there, some sort of retrospective controls on ownership, midway between full auto rifles and low-capacity rifles, rather than a retroactive ban, could be seen as a compromise. In my world, we think carefully about low frequency, high consequence events. Frankly, mass shootings are becoming high frequency/high consequence events. How many more Sutherland and Las Vegas shootings do we need to endure before we re-think ARs and their handgun bretheren? Just as we wouldn’t really want Homer Simpson as the operator of a nuclear power plant, there are a few people I would prefer not having the power of mass carnage over the public.

For those GVP advocates who think the usual gun control proposals will drastically reduce gun deaths, I say keep dreaming. We heavily control auto use via competency licensing of drivers, registration of vehicles, laws regulating motor vehicle safety (such as air bags and structural crumple zones), and laws regulating traffic operation. We still kill about thirty to forty thousand Americans per year. That’s because with hundreds of millions of Americans driving about three hundred million cars, some small fraction will be mishandled or deliberately misused. I think the same would hold true for guns as long as there are so many out there. As Mike likes to say, if you own a gun, sooner or later it will go bang. If we want to seriously reduce gun deaths and injury, we need to seriously reduce guns. My own quick analysis of the Center for American Progress’s news release a couple years ago was that the most basic correlation was between suicides and gun ownership. Since that is the case, it doesn’t matter what guns we regulate since all it has to do is go bang once. Nonetheless, we need to have gun laws for the same reason we need traffic laws: to provide consensus guidance for safe operation and penalties for misuse.

My two most compelling gun violence prevention laws would be universal background checks (except to people who know each other well and can vouch for each other) and safe storage laws. Selling to a stranger without a background check is rolling the dice. Straw purchases, as recounted in a 15 Nov. Washington Post Story by Peter Hermann, Ann Marimow, and Clarence Williams (“One Illegal Gun: 12 Weeks. A Dozen Criminal Acts. The Rapid Cycle of Gun Violence”), can rapidly result in multiple cases of armed carnage.  Indeed, I think the most compelling hypothesis for the posited link between permissive right to carry and higher gun crime rate recently asserted by Prof. John Donohue et al is not necessarily that more hotheads are obtaining carry permits but that simply more guns are being bought and carried about or stored carelessly and therefore available to be stolen. Ensuring that someone else, whether it be a family member, house guest, or a stranger doesn’t get their hands on your banger is critical. As Albuquerque Police Chief Gordon Eden recently recounted to me, theft is his best estimate of the principle source of guns used in crime in that city.

The bigger picture of violence in America obviously goes far beyond gun ownership and involves drug laws, poverty, income inequality, a disastrous loss of blue collar jobs, and social divisions. But as Philip Cook et al recently stated, most economically developed nations have crime problems. Ours are more lethal since there are far more guns involved. We gun owners certainly are not to blame for the larger social context of violence, except insofar as we may, as individuals, tolerate social injustice. But as firearms owners and enthusiasts we have a moral obligation to do our part to reduce gun violence. Simply saying it is someone else’s problem means that sooner or later, the bigger problems will land on our doorstep, whether in blood spilled or regulation.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.