The Myth Of The ‘Sensible Gun Owner.

In 1890 the U.S. Census declared that wilderness no longer existed in the continental United States. And this announcement provoked the first, public debate in this country between the fledgling conservationist-naturalist movement on the one hand, and the proponents of unrestrained, economic growth on the other.  This debate continues in the present day except now it has taken on a global perspective known as Global Warming, but the two sides – conservation versus development – haven’t really changed their respective positions at all.  And the reason the debate is so rancorous and unending is that neither side seems willing to engage in an effort to find some kind of compromise middle ground which will allow us to preserve part of what is still natural while, at the same time, giving economic development incentives to spread.

heston            This same profile – two sides unwilling to meet somewhere in the middle and compromise over basic goals – exists in the argument over guns and, more specifically, the argument over violence caused by guns.  On the one hand we have seen a recent growth in the size and activity of groups and organizations dedicated to reducing gun violence; on the other we have an entrenched and well-organized pro-gun community which denies that guns are responsible for any violence at all.  Or if there is a bit of violence that results from someone using a gun in an inappropriate way (Sandy Hook, Pulse, et. al.,) it’s a price we need to pay because of the value of gun ownership in terms of history, tradition, freedom, sport and most of all, self-defense.

But what about all those surveys which show that a whopping super-majority of Americans and even a substantial majority of gun owners support the idea of ‘sensible’ restrictions on guns?  The latest polls disclose a near-90% positive response to the question of whether background checks should be conducted on all transfers of guns and even four out of fine gun owners, according to the recent surveys, also endorse this particular form of ‘sensible’ restrictions on ownership of guns. So if just about everyone agrees that a ‘sensible’ strategy like universal background checks is a good thing, how come all these sensible folks, particularly gun-owning sensible folks, don’t show up to vote for expanded background checks whenever the issue appears on a state-level ballot or is the subject of a debate on Capitol Hill?  Yes, California passed a law mandating background checks for ammo purchases, but a ballot initiative in Maine to extend background checks on gun transfers failed.

So where are all these ‘sensible’ gun owners that the gun violence prevention (GVP) community will tell you really exist?  The truth is that their existence is more apparent than real.  And the reason it’s more apparent is because not one of those surveys which keeps discovering the existence of all those sensible gun owners ever asks the crucial follow-up question which is: Do you support the NRA?  Because if the polls did ask that question I guarantee you that the same four out of five gun owners who say they are in favor of expanded background checks would also state that they support America’s ‘oldest’ civil-rights organization, whether they are NRA members or not.

And guess what?  Back in August the NRA announced unequivocally and without reservation of any kind the organization’s total and unalterable opposition to expanding background checks, “because background checks don’t stop criminals from getting firearms, because some proposals to do so would deprive individuals of due process of law, and because NRA opposes firearm registration.” And that’s that.

If one were to go back and ask all those ‘sensible’ gun owners whether they agreed with the NRA’s stance on background checks they would probably say ‘no.’  But if you were to then ask them whether this disagreement would make them withdraw their support for the NRA they would stare at you in shock and reply, “Who’s going to support my right to own a gun? And that last statement is the reason why the notion of the ‘sensible’ gun owner is a myth.

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Why Don’t We Make The 2016 Election A National Plebiscite On Guns?

So Hillary’s beginning to look around for a VP and, not without good reason, the names of some other women have come into view, the most prominent of course being Liz Warren. I say ‘of course’ because this trial balloon is probably being floated by the folks who want to make sure that Bernie’s most ardent supporters don’t bolt and run during the Fall election.  Like where are they going to go?  To Ralph Nader?

hillary            Anyway, I think with all due respect to the gender warriors (said positively, btw) that what Hillary really needs to do is forget about balancing her ticket by using the traditional methodologies like geography, class, so on and so forth, and instead think about issues, in particular the one issue which gave her campaign a real boost, namely, the issue of guns.  Because you may recall that when Hillary raised the gun issue in no uncertain terms, the media (as well as her campaign) described the move as an attempt to exploit a chink in Bernie’s alleged left-wing view of things, but I saw it as something else.

And what I saw it as was the very first response by any Democrat to what had been, and continues to be an endless barrage of “I Love The 2nd Amendment” crap from Trump and the other Republican presidential phonies all the way down the line. This nonsense started the day after two television journalists were killed in Virginia on August 26, 2015 when the Shlump said that it “wasn’t a gun problem” and went on to support the notion that armed civilians made Americans safe from crime.  He then began working the most strident calls for 2nd Amendment ‘rights’ into all his KKK rallies and issued a white paper extolling the virtues of law-abiding gun owners, whereupon all the other Republican presidential weasels followed suit. Remember when Marco Rubio picked up a free gun at Ruger?

Hillary’s decision to go big-time on the gun issue started in the aftermath of the Umpqua shooting on October 1, 2015. And she took it right to the Republicans the very next day in a Florida speech when she said “we need to build a movement” to counter the strength of the NRA.  She made it clear that she was going to attack Republicans on this issue, and she has continued to push a strong GVP agenda ever since.  To quote from her website: “comprehensive background checks, cracking down on illegal gun traffickers, holding dealers and manufacturers accountable when they endanger Americans, and keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and stalkers.” Not a bad list.

And not only is it a good list, but all those issues happen to be supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans, support which cuts across all demographic lines and includes gun owners as well. It also turns out, incidentally, that in all surveys that ask people whether they feel safer with a gun, women consistently score higher than men in believing that gun access puts people at risk.  Women also score higher than men on wanting more gun regulations, with the most recent Pew poll showing 57% of women expressing the need for more gun regulations, as opposed to only 37% of males.

So here we have a significant gender difference on the issue which most clearly differentiates Hillary from the ‘presumptive’ Republican nominee, and one which I believe could be best exploited by bringing to the Democratic ticket another woman whose experience, crowd appeal and media savvy would dramatically overwhelm any Trump-ish attempt to further exploit NRA-engendered fears about the loss of 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’  Because the truth is that what I want to see is a national plebiscite that will really test, once and for all, the alleged American love affair with guns.  So I got an idea. We need a woman who can drive home the GVP message.  I haven’t discussed this with her, but why don’t we draft Shannon Watts?

Want To Bet Against Background Checks? You Might Lose.

Score another win for the gun-sense team.  On Monday the Governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, signed into law a bill that basically requires background checks for all gun transfers in the state. The measure is similar to the I-594 initiative that now requires universal background checks in neighboring Washington State.  So now, with a few exceptions, anyone living on the West Coast between Canada and Mexico must undergo the NICS background check process in order to buy, sell, or transfer a gun.

I wouldn’t necessarily take the short odds against background checks becoming law of the land, if only because although we usually think our country was settled east to west, in fact much of our culture has moved west to east. California was already settled by Spanish conquistadores and their descendants while Virginia, Massachusetts and the other colonies were still largely woods, and much of our modern culture first appeared on the West Coast in the form of movies and tv. I first heard of ‘health food’ when I went from New York to teach at Berkeley in 1976. And let’s not forget where Starbucks got started, ditto Ronald Reagan and the ‘modern conservative movement’ along with half-and-half.

nics                I have no issue with the notion that background checks keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  I also don’t believe the nonsense thrown around by so-called 2nd-Amendment ‘absolutists’ that background checks are a violation of their constitutional rights. But we shouldn’t just assume that because the FBI says that slightly more than 1 million NICS transactions have been denied since the system became operational in 1998 that this somehow translates into one million guns being kept away from the ‘wrong hands,’ which means kept away from people who will use those guns to commit violence and crimes.

We really don’t know why violent crime rates, particularly gun crime rates, have dropped by 50% over the last twenty years.  And because we don’t know why this has occurred, it’s not clear that any of the solutions, including background checks, will result in gun violence dropping any more. I’m not suggesting that we should stop strengthening gun regulations just because, to parrot the NRA, criminals don’t obey laws.  If we used criminal response to laws as a criteria for judging the effectiveness of our legal codes, we would never pass a single statute at all.  What I am suggesting is that if we continue to define gun violence as a preventable public health issue, which is how we have been defining it since 1981, we should set realistic goals for reductions in gun violence and use these goals to judge the effectiveness of the policies and strategies that are espoused.

In fact, the CDC has adopted what they believe to be realistic goals for reductions in gun violence over the next five years.  These goals call for a 10% reduction by 2020 in gun homicides, non-fatal shootings and children bringing guns into schools.  I think the time has come for activists who are working to end gun violence to sit down, en masse, and figure out whether the CDC numbers are realistic, or need to be adjusted, or need to be replaced by a different set of criteria and a different set of goals.  And the gun industry should be invited to participate in this discussion as well.

The gun industry used to count on the fact that the upsurge in concern about gun violence which followed every high-profile shooting would quickly run its course.  Frankly, I thought the groundswell provoked by Sandy Hook would be over by the time the first anniversary of the tragedy rolled around.  But recent events in Washington State and Oregon have proven me wrong. And when it comes to public health policies, things have a way of taking on a momentum and a life of their own. As I said early on, I wouldn’t take the short odds against more gun regulations down the line.

 

 

Want To Stop Gun Violence? Here’s My Plan

There’s been an unending debate about how to curb gun violence so that we won’t experience more massacres like Sandy Hook.  Whether it’s expanding background checks, or banning hi-cap magazines, or adding mental health data to NICS, there’s no end to the proposals, strategies and  solutions.

But let’s be honest, the truth is that what the gun control folks really want is to get rid of the guns.  Yea, yea, I know that everyone supports the 2nd Amendment.  But the 2nd Amendment’s guarantee of gun ownership is about as important to Michael Bloomberg as the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom is to an atheist.  Not that Bloomberg with his billions or Obama with his press conferences have been able to accomplish anything.  But Mike the Gun Guy has a way they could get rid of all the guns without spending another dollar on campaign contributions or infringing on the 2nd Amendment at all.

Take a look at the monthly NICS totals published by the FBI.  The highest monthly number of NICS background checks ever recorded since the system went live in 1998 was December, 2012, when the FBI phone bank received 2,783,765 calls.  The previous month, November, was the first month that the system ever logged more than 2 million calls. Remember what happened in November, 2012?  Someone named Obama got re-elected.  Recall the date of Sandy Hook?  December 16.

Within a six-week period the most liberal, anti-gun President got to sleep in the White House for another four years, and then a mass killing took place that sparked immediate calls for more gun control.  From January 1 until March 31, NICS received another 7 million background check requests, and from November, 2012 through March 2013, total NICS calls almost hit 12 million. No wonder Smith & Wesson announced record revenues for the quarter ending April 30.

But a funny thing began to happen as the gun industry marched along. In May, following the defeat of Manchin-Toomey and other gun control schemes, NICS checks fell to 1,435,917 and in June dropped even further to 1,281,351. The June figure was the lowest since July 2011, and from what I hear and what I see in my shop, the figure for July will be lower still. In other words, since the high-point of last December, the drop is more than fifty percent!  Please don’t post a comment about how NICS numbers can’t be trusted because so many guns can be sold without a background check.  NICS obviously doesn’t cover all transactions, but it does cover virtually every new gun sold for the first time.  So the NICS number may not be absolutely correct, but it’s a very good gauge for understanding sales trends in the gun industry.

If the decline in NICS continues, the FBI will conduct less than a million monthly background checks within the next several months, and by year’s end we could be back down to the pre-9/11 days of George W. Bush.  Boom and bust is typical of the gun industry because spikes in sales are invariably the result of gun owners believing they won’t be able to buy more guns, rather than consumers entering the gun market for the first time.  Surveys seem to indicate that the number of households with guns keeps declining, while the number of guns owned by Americans keeps increasing.  Get it?

Gun sales have doubled from 2006 to 2012, but what the gun control crew should do to reduce the number of guns coming onto the market is to keep their mouths shut.  No more Dianne Feinstein press conferences, no more Michael Bloomberg “straw sales” videos, no more Joe Biden playing Joe Biden.  If gun owners stop worrying about “attacks” on the 2nd Amendment, they’ll stop buying guns.  Less guns out there, less guns get into the wrong hands.  The market can be a much more efficient way to regulate gun behavior than any government plan.

Where Do The Numbers Come From In The Gun Control Debate?

Have you noticed how each side in the current argument about guns has a favorite statistic that they like to throw around?  For the NRA it’s the 2.5 million crimes that didn’t occur last year because more and more people use a gun to deter a crime.  For the President and his supporters it’s the 40% of all gun transfers that take place without a background check.  The NRA claims that their number “proves” that we would all be safer if everyone walked around with a gun.  The gun-control crowd says that their number “proves” that we need to expand background checks so that guns won’t end up in the wrong hands.  Does anyone know where these numbers come from?  Here’s the answer.

The NRA number comes from a telephone survey conducted by the criminologist Gary Kleck in 1994.  As for Obama, his number also comes from a 1994 telephone survey conducted by the sociologist Philip Cook.  Note that 1994 was the last time we had a national debate on guns that ended with passage of both Brady and the assault weapons ban.  Twenty years later we have a new debate but we’re using the same old numbers.  But it’s not that the numbers are old; they are flawed.

Let’s take Kleck’s numbers first.  No respondent was asked to prove that the incident could actually be independently verified.  Although 60% said the incident had “come to the attention of the police,” they were not asked whether it had actually been reported to the police or, for that matter, to anyone else.  Kleck’s explanation for this extraordinary lapse in methodology was that he assumed that many of the respondents might have been walking around either with guns they weren’t supposed to be carrying or were carrying guns in places where such behavior was prohibited.  But the survey didn’t seek to determine that issue either.  Did the people who claimed they used a gun to deter a crime really know what they were talking about?  Can we trust anyone to accurately describe an event without having some way of independently verifying  the truth of what they said? It’s a no-brainer to verify the results of a political poll.  Just wait for the election and then count the votes. But how do you verify something like whether someone really knew that a crime was going to take place?  Especially when the whole point is that the crime didn’t take place.

The methodology of Cook’s survey is not only as flawed as Kleck’s, but might even be worse. Cook asked his respondents if they knew how they acquired their weapon, and 60 percent said they “believed” they got it from a “licensed” dealer.  They ‘believed.’  Then the Department of Justice took this number and assumed that the other 40 percent who admitted to acquiring guns in this survey must have gotten them from someone else.  And this is the 40 percent who, twenty years later, still get their hands on guns without undergoing a background check.

By the way, there were no background checks in 1994.  The NICS system only became operational in 1995.  So nobody underwent a background check in 1994 and if Obama, Bloomberg and Manchin want to base their campaign for expanded background checks on the DOJ survey, they should be consistent and say that the rate of gun transfers without background checks today is 100 percent.  Because that was the rate in 1994.

Last but not least: Kleck’s survey was based on interviews with 225 people; Cook contacted 248.  A national political argument that has consumed the attention of the government, the media and God knows how many advocacy groups is based on discussions with less than 500 people.  Should we be at all surprised that we never found any WMDs in Iraq?

Dumb or Dumber – Either Way Kelly Ayotte is Clueless About Background Checks

When the Manchin-Toomey bill went down to defeat, I wondered how certain Senators could say they supported background checks while, at the same time, voting against them.  At least the Senators who voted against the bill because they didn’t like background checks (ex. Rand Paul) were being consistent.  But saying yes on the one hand and no on the other?

English: Official portrait of US Senator Kelly...

English: Official portrait of US Senator Kelly AYotte. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

A friend just forwarded to me a copy of the letter that Kelly Ayotte is sending out to people who have taken the trouble to ask her the same question.  And her response is that the NICS system is not working and until it’s fixed, she can’t support extending it to cover additional transactions.  Here’s her first proof that the NICS system is “broken.” She sasy:

“Even if the current background check system was expanded, it’s important to note that a May 2013 Department of Justice report found that less than one percent of state prison inmates who possessed a gun when they committed their offense obtained the firearm at a gun show, and only about 10 percent of state prison inmates obtained their firearm from a licensed firearm dealer. In many cases, criminals find alternate methods to obtain firearms. In fact, 40 percent of state prison inmates who possessed a gun when they committed their offense obtained their firearm from an illegal source such as through a drug deal, theft, or the black market, and that is why we need rigorous prosecution of gun-related crimes.”

Is Senator Ayotte actually saying that if 40% of all guns used in felonies cannot be tracked or controlled through background checks, that we shouldn’t go after the other 60%?  Is a United States Senator saying something quite that stupid? Hold on – it gets better. She also says that the whole NICS is a “broken system that the government is not fully enforcing.”  And she adds: “For example, in 2010, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was referred 76,412 National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) denials, about two-thirds of which were based on the applicant being a felon or fugitive from justice. Of those, charges were brought in only 44 cases – and resulted in just 13 successful prosecutions.”

This business about all the NICS denials that aren’t being prosecuted has been floating around the background checks debate and I’d give anything to find out who said it first. Because I’ve heard it repeated again and again and while it sounds like the system really isn’t working, I wouldn’t assume that there’s any problem at all.  For example, what does the phrase “fugitive from justice” really mean?  In Los Angeles, for example, there are more than one million outstanding bench warrants for such offenses as failing to pay a fine for jay-walking, or smoking, or God knows what else.  The number in New York City is about the same.  None of these warrants will ever be served and every one of these individuals is a “fugitive from justice.”  I’m not saying the system is perfect; there have been NICS denials in my shop and I know at least one instance in which the individual who was denied really shouldn’t have gotten a gun.

The truth is that Kelly Ayotte didn’t want to vote for expanded background checks because for the moment she’s a friend of the NRA.  She can’t come out and admit it, so she cloaks her vote in an appeal for ‘better enforcement’ of existing laws.  Oh well, I guess in politics you get what you vote for.  Maine voted for Kelly and Kelly voted for the NRA.

 

Background Checks: Do They Make a Difference?

Until 1968, the Federal Government only regulated the sale of automatic weapons.  This changed after the assassinations of Kennedy and King, at which point the Feds got into the gun regulation business big time.  The Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibited mail-order gun purchases but more importantly, defined for the first time certain types of individuals who could not own or purchase a firearm. With a few additions and revisions, the reasons that prohibit individuals from owning firearms anywhere in the United States has not really changed since 1968.

The form used for background checks is known as the 4473.  Every gun that is transferred between a dealer and a consumer requires that the purchaser fill out the 4473 which is then used by the dealer to perform a background with the FBI.  In addition to personal identifiers (name, address, birth date, etc.,) the buyer must then answer a series of questions that, if answered in the affirmative, would prohibit transfer of the firearm, including such issues as felony indictments or convictions, restraining orders, domestic violence and so forth.

From 1968 until 1998 the background check form was filled out for all dealer transfers, but there was no actual check performed to validate the information. The forms were kept on file by each dealer and the ATF could inspect the forms but had no way of knowing whether, in fact, the information on each form was true or false.

In 1998, as part of the Brady Act, the FBI created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as NICS, which aggregates state and federal criminal databases.  The law requires that every time a firearm is transferred between a federally-licensed dealer and a customer, the customer fills out the form and the dealer then calls the NICS phone center and gets approval for the transaction.  If the transaction is denied, the customer can appeal the decision, but of the 12,000 or so background checks that I have performed, I can count total denials on the fingers of two hands.

Most people who purchase guns from a dealer pass the background check which is why people who would fail the check tend to acquire their guns through private transactions which aren’t covered by the Brady Law.  But if the Senate and then the House had actually passed a bill that extended background checks to all gun transactions, would it make us any safer, as the proponents of universal background checks insist?

According to the NRA, background checks and gun violence have nothing to do with each other.  They point to the fact that Adam Lanza’s mother passed the background check when she purchased the rifle and the pistols that her son subsequently used to massacre 20 children and 6 adults in Sandy Hook. The Aurora theater shooter, had he been a better shot, would have killed more people than died during Lanza’s rampage, and he purchased all his guns after passing background checks.

The problem with the NRA position, of course, is that it sidesteps the issue of guns as a contributor to violence, regardless of whose hands, background-checked or not, are holding the gun.  “Guns don’t kill people,” says the NRA, “people kill people.”  But the truth is that in other countries where gun ownership is strictly controlled, there’s still plenty of serious crime, but many fewer homicides take place.  In fact, our serious crime rate is about even with countries like Germany and Denmark, but our homicide rate is three times higher than either  country, largely the result of guns being used in criminal attacks.

The proponents of expanded background checks, on the other hand, point to data from the FBI, which shows that each year more than 70,000 potential gun owners fail background checks, which represents a significant number of guns that do not fall into the wrong hands.  Except we don’t really know whether they fall into the wrong hands, because we have no idea how or when any guns actually fall into the wrong hands.

In 2010, approximately 3 million handguns (pistols and revolvers) came onto the U.S. market,  That same year, there were roughly 31,000 deaths caused by firearms (Yea, yea, I know, guns don’t kill people, people kill people….)  There were also somewhere around 80,000 woundings caused by firearms (Yea, yea, I know again….) So there were 110,000 incidents of gun violence.  Now let’s subtract the accidents (about 1,000 deaths and 15,000 woundings) and the suicides, both successful and not-so-succesful (20,000.)  We end up with 75,000 deaths and injuries where clearly a gun got into the “wrong” hands.

We also know that at least 85% of all killings and woundings from guns involved handguns. So if every single shooting that took place in 2010 was done with a gun that entered the market that same year (which, of course is absurd, but just follow my line of argument a little further) it would mean that less than 3% of all handguns acquired by Americans in 2010 were used in the commission of a crime.

Fact: Every gun that enters the US market goes through at least 3 separate transactions, all of which are both legal and documented as to the identity of seller and buyer.  This is true from the moment the gun leaves the factory or the importer until it is placed in the hands of the first consumer.  Despite the hue and cry of ‘gun trafficking’ and the existence of rogue dealers, the ATF is particularly diligent when it comes to monitoring Acquisition & Disposition records that track the movement of all guns.

Which brings us to the BIG QUESTION: At which point did the 75,000 guns that were involved in all gun felonies move from the legal to the illegal environment?  If we knew the answer to this question we could, at least in theory, begin to develop some mitigating strategies.  At this point we cannot.  And extending background checks to private transactions probably would have some, but not much impact on understanding this problem because once a gun moves into the prohibited environment, it’s not moving back into legal hands.

Most felony guns end up moving into an environment where they will be used illegally or inappropriately because at some point, a legal owner decides that it just doesn’t matter who ends up owning or using the gun.  This decision could be made by the first owner, or the person to whom he sold the gun or the owner after that.  But no amount of legal penalties surrounding the transfer of guns from one person to another will stop 3% of gun owners from having no concern about the disposition of their guns unless every gun owner becomes committed to a safe and secure disposition of their firearms