Do We Really All Support Background Checks?

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If I had a nickel for every gun violence prevention (GVP) advocate and/or gun violence researchers who believes that the American public is not so polarized about controlling guns, I would be somewhere at my golf club and not sitting in my office writing, doing emails, answering the phone and doing all the things I do in order to keep my checkbook occasionally in balance. And this GVP belief in the ability to work with the ‘other side’ stems primarily from endless surveys which show that even gun owners and/or Republicans (usually the same thing) support comprehensive background checks.

polls2             The latest pronouncement in this respect comes from one of our leading gun researchers, Garen Wintemute, who is now overseeing a $5 million grant from the State of California to fund research that has been left undone since the CDC stopped funding gun violence research back in 1998. As ‘proof’ that we are not so divided over the issue of background checks, I quote Wintemute from a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times: “90% of the general population supports (background checks for all firearms purchases), 80% of gun owners support it and 70% of self-reported NRA members support it. Things are not as polarized as they seem.”

I’m assuming that Wintemute took these numbers from the Pew poll published back in June which found, among other things, that 19% of all gun owners were members of the NRA. If this were true, the $165 million they pulled in from dues in 2015 would be chump change compared to what they would really rack if the 19% ‘NRA members’ were paying annual dues. Try about $250 million, okay?

But since the Pew researchers made no effort to ask people why they said they were members of America’s oldest civil rights organization, for the moment let’s accept the number as true even if it’s not. Here’s a bigger truth. The NRA has come out officially and publicly against any expansion of background checks. Period. No compromise whatsoever. So what the Pew researchers should have asked, and perhaps one of Wintemute’s research colleagues will get around to asking at some point is this: ‘If you favor background checks, would you drop your NRA membership because the organization is opposed to background checks?’  Or perhaps instead of that question, the researchers would ask something along the lines like this: ‘Would you vote for someone whose stance on issues included expanding background checks?’

Remember a political candidate named Hillary Clinton? She used a very strong GVP argument to knock Bernie out of the box. The only problem is that the same argument didn’t work in the general election worth a damn. I’m not saying that Trump won the election only because of his stance on 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ What I am saying is that asking the average person if they favor expanded background checks doesn’t really tell you very much about how that individual will really line up and be counted when a new gun law is being debated in the jurisdiction where that individual happens to live.

I’m also not saying that gun owners are ignorant of the importance of background checks for the transfer a gun from one set of hands to another set of hands. Nor am I saying they are lying when they tell a survey-taker that they support expanded background checks. But asking someone to respond to a specific question about guns doesn’t really tell you how the answer to that question lines up with other thoughts the same person holds about guns and how best to use public policies to diminish the violence caused by guns.

The same gun owners who told Pew they favored comprehensive background checks also said they wanted teachers to carry guns in schools and in case you don’t remember, arming teachers was the NRA’s response following the massacre at Sandy Hook.

If only the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ could be measured by responses to a single question in a poll.

The NRA Tilts Loony Right Or Nobody Will Buy Guns.

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I received an email yesterday from someone who read my Huffington column on the NRA and white supremacists and he wanted to know why the NRA leadership continues to tilt further and further not just to the Right, but to the loony Right. And a quick glance at the latest FBI-NICS background checks might contain an answer that both he and the gun violence prevention (GVP) community should consider with interest and care.

wayne             While obviously background checks can’t give totals for all transfers of guns, what they can give is an indication of the trend of new guns coming into the market each year. And when all is said and done, this is really the most important number which needs to be followed because there is simply no getting away from the fact that the more guns out there, the more people get hurt with guns. And please, please don’t send me an email telling me that it’s bot the gun, it’s the person holding the gun, okay?

Back in March, some gun-sellers were reporting that sales were still strong, others said sales were off – it was a mixed bag and nobody was sure which way the gun market would eventually go. But that was March and this is now August, and if this month turns out to be as lousy as last month, the fall-off in demand for guns may turn out to be much worse than even the most pessimistic analysts have projected to date.

For July 2016, the FBI-NICS phone bank racked up 1,143,824 calls covering gun transfers, including 628,725 handgun transfers, which from the perspective of gun violence is the most important category of all. Last month, July 2017, the total gun transfer number was 845,007, with handguns comprising 480,124 of the total calls. That’s a month-to-month drop of 26%, with handguns sales dropping slightly less by 24%.

Historically, July and August are always the slowest months in the gun business because despite the necessity to always have that gun around to protect yourself from thugs, terrorists and God knows what else, guns just can’t compete with the beach. Which is why a same-month comparison from one year to the next is a potent indicator of the overall health and outlook of the industry as a whole.

Let’s take a somewhat longer view.  From January 1, 2016 through July 31, 2016 the FBI rang up 4,712,334 calls for background checks on handguns; for the same period in 2017 the total was 4,257,132, a decline of roughly 10%. As for long guns, the slippage was also 10%, from 2,913,489 to 2,607,137. In the last two months, the drop in handguns sales year-to-year was nearly 20%.

If the more recent trends continue, the bloom is not only off the rose, the whole rose bush might be starting to dry up and wither away. Which means that not only will revenues within the gun industry collapse, but revenues for gun organizations like the NRA will also begin to decline.

The little secret which the NRA doesn’t want you to know is that for all their recent forays into television and video, the truth is that most people come into contact with America’s ‘oldest civil rights organization’ only when they walk into a place that sells guns. Ask yourself this question: ever seen an advertisement or logo for the NRA in the local convenience store, Walmart or CVS?

The problem for the NRA is simply this: in order to augment or even maintain their financial base the only thing that really works is to keep people buying guns. They can peddle concealed-carry insurance or holsters that fit inside bras or t-shirts which proclaim your 2nd-Amendment ‘rights,’ but nobody’s going to buy any of that crap unless they already own a gun. And how do you get more people to buy guns when no matter what you say, a gun simply doesn’t represent a necessary part of everyday existence like your car keys or your droid?

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.

Do Background Checks Equal Gun Sales? Not By A Long Shot.

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Like most of us, I’m sick and tired of the alt-right’s attack on mainstream media by calling it ‘fake news.’ Talk about the pot calling the kettle black, or worse. But every once in a while our friends in the real news media get it wrong, and this seems to happen frequently when the issue involves guns. Which is not surprising given the fact that liberals and educated folks in general are usually not that versant with guns or gun cultures, which is all the more reason they should be extra careful when they wander onto the gun-owning/using turf.

An example of this lack of knowledge about guns came out today in an NPR story about background checks in which the writer, Uri Berliner, used the latest FBI-NICS check numbers to craft an article about the post-Trump decline in gun sales.  Now young man Berliner has some impressive journalistic creds; according to the NPR website, he is part of the Planet Money team and previously worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. All of which I am sure has given him lots of experience in how to research a story before he sends it out. But this particular story, unfortunately, shows little, if any understanding about trends in the gun business at all.

What Berliner has done is taken the most recent news release from the FBI which gives the overall number of background checks for the previous month, and then assumed without bothering to look at the actual data, that each background check equals the transfer of at least one gun.  His story contains a neat little graphic which shows that monthly background checks have declined from 2.8 million in December to 2.2 million last month, numbers that are far below comparable monthly numbers for 2015. I reproduce the graphic here:

berliner

There’s only one little problem. Berliner is using overall background check numbers (which is what the FBI uses in its press releases because it would like you to know how hard they are working down in West Virginia) which do not distinguish between background checks for gun transfers as opposed to background checks for gun license applications, concealed-carry permits and guns taken out of pawn. You see, the FBI-NICS system isn’t just utilized to make sure that a dealer isn’t putting a gun into the ‘wrong hands.’ It’s also used by law enforcement agencies who don’t have the ability to determine whether a resident of their state applying for a gun or CCW license hasn’t committed a disqualifying crime in some other state.

Had Berliner taken the trouble to look at the actual FBI-NICS data which can be seen here, he would have discovered that of those 2.2 million background checks processed in February, more than half had nothing to do with gun transfers at all. In fact, February, 2017 was the first month that background checks for something other than gun transfers actually exceeded background checks on guns since the FBI started breaking out their numbers back in 1998. And when you examine the background check data in detail, what jumps out is the degree to which the sale of guns (using NICS as a proxy) has declined much more than what the NPR story would lead us to believe.

I’m not saying that Berliner is incorrect when he claims that the gun industry is in the midst of a post-Trump slump. But let’s remember that the whole background check issue is the Numero Uno issue being discussed and debated among organizations that seek to reduce gun violence and believe that expanding background checks is a proper way to proceed.

You would think that NPR would at least understand the necessity of verifying the data which they use to construct a story based on background checks. You would think that the gun violence prevention (GVP) community would want to understand what the data actually means.

You would think….

Want To Buy Another Gun? There Are Plenty Lying Around.

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Now that America’s greatest all-time gun salesman has departed from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, leave it to the NRA to try and pretend that #45 is filling his shoes.  Because after ponying up $30 million for Trump television campaign ads, the last thing the boys in Fairfax will admit is that the result of spending all that dough given by their loyal members (like me) will result in the gun industry going down the tubes. And I guarantee you that as the purchase of new guns continues to slide, the NRA will push out this phony argument and those phony numbers again and again to pretend that Americans still want more guns.

bomber             The fact is that the gun industry has always been a boom-and-bust industry, sales trends driven by fears that guns might be taken away. There simply is no truth to the argument I hear from various Gun-nut Nation mouthpieces that all kinds of new demographics – women, minorities, millennials – are into guns. The percentage of American households that report legal gun ownership has declined by nearly half over the last twenty years, and the explosion of gun sales during the Obama ‘regime’ (at least we won’t hear Limbaugh ratcheting up that disgusting remark for the next four years) basically represented people who owned guns buying more guns.

But leave it to the NRA to come up with a post-election narrative on gun sales which twists the facts in a way to prove that the gun industry will remain alive and well even when nobody needs to be worried about whether they can buy another gun.  Here’s the headline from the NRA-ILA blog: “‘Trump Slump’ Proved False By Strong Background Check Numbers,” a response to articles in the financial press predicting that gun sales in 2017 will decline by 20 percent.

Actually it should only be that background checks on over-the-counter sales in January and February dropped by 20 percent.  In fact, the 2017 drop so far is more like 50% from the monthly totals in November-December, 2016, with the NRA trying to claim that the February, 2017 sales were the ‘third-best’ February sales of all time. And the NRA also skimmed over the fact that since the FBI-NICS background check system went online in 1999, that checks for license applications and renewals last month exceeded background checks for gun transfers for the very first time.

There’s a reason why Smith & Wesson recently changed its corporate name and stock listing to something called American Outdoor Brands.  Never mind the fact that the company has never successfully sold anything except guns; back in 2005 they even tried to hondle bath towels, blankets, bed sheets, pots and pans. But as the Motley Fool politely noted, “The rugged outdoors business can help smooth out the peaks and valleys of the gun business.”

Peaks and valleys – I love it. How about peaks and ravines? Remember when you couldn’t find a Smith & Wesson AR-15 ‘modern sporting rifle’ for less than a grand?  You can buy them online now for $600 and change. Or how about the Model 637, the lightweight version of the little, snub-nose revolver which first rolled out when the factory was still located in downtown Springfield on Stockbridge Street? The company lists the MSRP at $469 but I can buy the gun right now for $359. When was the last time you could buy a new Honda for more than 20% under MSRP?  I’ll tell you when: never, as in not ever, okay?

The good news about the gun business is that, all the nonsense about the ‘armed citizen’ to the contrary, most of the customers are hobbyists and if a gun maker comes out with a new product there will always be some sales.  But designing and manufacturing a new product means investing profits from the sale of current products and right now those profits aren’t there. Sorry folks, but the NRA make-believe isn’t a substitute for hard cash.

 

 

What A Surprise! Gun Sales Hit The Skids Under Trump.

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Want to make a million in the gun business? Start with two million.  It’s an old joke but it has a ring of truth to it because even though guns have been selling like hot cakes since you-know-who moved into the White House in 2009, now that he’s moved out, everyone’s predicting that the gun business will slow down.  And the problem with the gun business is that it’s always been boom-or-bust, driven primarily by the possibility that we won’t be able to get our hands on any more guns.

gun-sales        So when Trump pulled off the unthinkable on November 8th, given the fact that he had made gun-control (or I should say, less gun control) a central feature of his campaign, it was clear that the mad rush to stockpile guns during the Obama regime would come to an end. How much of an end?  The numbers so far are much worse than what people thought might occur.

Before I get into the bad news (or the good news, depending on your point of view,) I have to explain how to figure out how many guns are actually sold. Since more than 90% of the guns sold in the U.S. come from companies that are privately owned, we can’t get any kind of valid numbers from the gun makers themselves, but the FBI-NICS background check is extremely reliable for telling us how many new guns have been sold.

In that regard, a funny thing happened to new gun sales in January – they didn’t go down, they collapsed.  The drop in sales from December wasn’t in the nature of 20%, which is what the experts are saying will be the story for 2017; it was more like a drop of 50%, and I don’t ever recall something like that ever happening before. In that regard, Breitbart’s gun ‘expert,’ AWR Hawkins, got it all wrong when he said that background checks needed to be viewed with caution because since every purchase could represent multiple guns, 3 million checks could mean that 6 million new guns were purchased. Except that the monthly NICS report contains a separate category for multiple guns covered by the same call.

In December, 2016 the NICS call center logged 2,763,115 calls.  In January, 2017 total calls were 2,032,108.  Hold on you say, that’s only a decline of 26%, which happens to be, by the way, the biggest month-to-month drop since December-January, 2015-2016. But there’s only one little problem: of the slightly more than 2 million calls in January, more than one million were calls for license checks, pawn redemptions and private sales.  In fact, January 2017 marked the first time that calls for background checks on over-the-counter purchases were less than half the total calls handled by NICS. Gun sale checks were 976,341, which meant the month-to-month calls for background checks on gun sales dropped by nearly 55%.

Neither the NRA nor the NSSF has let out a peep about the January NICS numbers, as opposed to previous months when they couldn‘t wait to let everyone know that background checks for gun sales kept going up. If this trend continues, gun sales are to go back to where they were at the beginning of 2012, before Sandy Hook and before Obama got on his high horse about regulating guns.

No wonder Wayne-o went to CPAC and pledged that the NRA would become the first line of defense against violent, left-wing thugs. After all, if Trump gets his way with immigration, we won’t have all those undocumented, criminally-disposed ‘illegals’ top kick around any more. And unless Gun-nut Nation can come up with a new threat to hearth and home, it may not be long until the shrunken January gun numbers will be a pleasant memory compared to what gun sales might really become.

Wouldn’t it be funny if the NRA is secretly funding Obama’s ‘secret coup?’

The NRA Wins A Big One Which Doesn’t Mean Anything At All.

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In return for helping to secure the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, the NRA had its Congressional toadies undo a Presidential Executive Action which mandated removing guns from people receiving disability benefits for mental disorders.  The NRA has been braying about the need to ‘fix’ the mental health system in lieu of expanding background checks to secondary gun transfers, but this didn’t stop America’s ‘oldest civil rights organization’ from leading the charge to protect mentally-disabled gun owners who otherwise might have been separated from their guns.

bomber             As usual, the NRA’s statement about this issue was nothing short of a complete and total fabrication as to whether Obama’s action was based on anything other than the former President’s hatred of guns.  The action said that people who receive Social Security Administration (SSA) disability payments for mental disorders and, more important, have an ‘assigned representative’ who manages their financial affairs, would be reported to FBI-NICS and therefore could not purchase or own guns.  Did this new procedure spring from the deranged brain of our 44th President as the NRA would like everyone to believe?  In fact, it is found in the criteria for legal gun ownership as defined by the ATF, and the ATF has been using this criteria for years.

Remember a little ATF form known as the 4473?  This is the form that everyone must fill out when purchasing a gun from a federally-licensed gun dealer, and it is the form which the gun dealer then uses to conduct the instant background check by contacting FBI-NICS. And here’s the relevant text from Question 11f: “Have you ever been adjudicated a mental defective OR have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” And this question is then explained in a footnote to the 4473 form which says that such an individual has been found by a ‘lawful authority’ to lack the mental capacity “to contract or manage his own affairs.”

Now between 2001 and 2014 I sold more than 12,000 guns in my retail store, and every, single sale required the purchaser to fill out a 4473.  And not a single person who ever bought a gun in my shop ever answered Question 11f by saying ‘yes.’  So when the NRA Congressional toadies rolled back Obama’s Order which required that the Social Security Administration simply comply with what the ATF has been requiring for many years, I decided to take a look at how the SSA actually defines these mental disabilities which would prevent such folks from owning guns.

The definitions of mental disability employed by the SSA, which then allow an individual to receive disability benefits, are found in an SSA publication, ‘Disability Evaluation Under Social Security,’ which can be read here. These mental disabilities are divided into 11 separate categories (neurocognitive, schizophrenic, depressive, etc.) but in every category, a determining factor is whether the individual can ‘function independently,’ which certainly precludes anyone who can’t manage their own financial affairs.

When the SSA initially issued this ruling on May 5, 2016, and invited everyone and anyone to submit comments which were summarized when the rule was finalized on December 19, 2016.  The SSA received 91,000 comments of which 86,000 were identical statements sent in by members of ‘one advocacy group’ whose identity you can use to test if you or anyone you know is mentally impaired.

I’m not a mental health professional so I’m not going to get into the question about whether people who are mentally impaired are threats to themselves or others if they own guns.  If you want to understand this issue, try reading an important collection of scholarly articles edited by Robert Simon and Liza Gold. But what I find interesting is the NRA’s ability to mount a successful campaign about this issue and generate a huge public outcry even though their position simply isn’t true. But the NRA now has a friend in the White House whose public statements and policies also appear to scrupulously avoid any connection to facts or the truth. So we’ll see what we see.

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