Is Gun Violence Endemic Or Epidemic? It’s Both.

So far this year our friends at the Gun Violence Archive are posting 7,821 deaths from guns. Which means that if the rate of gun deaths continues for the remainder of 2017, this year will end up seeing an increase in gun deaths over last year of around 15 percent, and an increase since 2014 of nearly 25 percent.

urban            I thought that gun deaths were going down because all law-abiding citizens are walking around with guns. Or at least they should be walking around with guns if you agree with the NRA. After all, the gun industry has been bragging about the ‘decline’ in violent crime at the same time that so many Americans are buying guns. Since the early 90’s, according to the NSSF, “homicides, other crimes, and accidents involving firearms have decreased dramatically,”

Actually, this dramatic decrease in gun violence more or less ended around 2000, then went up a bit, went down a bit, but now seems to be moving quickly upwards again. And don’t make the mistake of believing that this is just Chicago’s problem, even though the jerk in the White House keeps saying he’s going to send the troops into the Windy City to help Rahm out.  In fact, homicides in Chicago appear to be down by roughly 15% so far this year; too many lives are still being lost but we’ll take every bit of progress we can get.

Cities like St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland rank far ahead of Chicago for murder rates, Newark and Memphis are also more dangerous cities in which to live. Guns and gun violence are so endemic in many locations that the IPO of Shotspotter, whose technology tells the cops where guns are being shot off, jumped 26% as soon as shares went public, a sure sign that the violent use of guns isn’t going to disappear.

What appears to be happening in gun violence is what a brilliant physician and public health researcher, Katherine Kaufer Christoffel, wrote about in 2007 when she analyzed a shift in gun violence from ‘epidemic’ to ‘endemic’ rates. I happen to think that Dr. Christoffel’s article is one of the most important and informative contributions to the public health literature on gun violence and you can download it here. What she argues is that gun violence quickly spiked and then just as quickly declined between the late 1980’s and the early 1990’s because it was perceived as an ‘epidemic’ and treated as an emergency through a combination of local policing and health initiatives, coordination between stakeholding agencies and national legislation (e.g., the Brady bill.)

The result of these efforts, which also paralleled an overall decrease in violent crime, was that gun violence rates fell back to where they had been in the early 1980’s, but have since then remained steady and, in the last several years, started to go back up. But the transition from epidemic to endemic gun violence doesn’t mean that a fundamental ‘cure’ for the problem has been found. To the contrary, the problem with endemic public health conditions, as Dr. Christoffel points out, is that not only do they result in much suffering within the populations where the problem still exists, but they can ‘flare up’ as epidemics from place to place and time to time.

What we are witnessing in cities like St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit are exactly the return of an epidemic of gun violence which grows out of an endemic condition that has stabilized nationally but has never really been brought under control. In 1993, there were just under 40,000 gun deaths (homicide, suicide, accidents) which set a national gun-violence rate of 15.4. If the year-to-year increase continues at the recent rate, we could exceed the 1993 gun violence numbers within the next two or three years.

I hate to say it but it needs to be said: A lot more people may have to get killed or injured before something that really reduces gun violence ever gets done.



Does The NICS System Work? It Not Only Works, It’s Getting Better.

One of the enduring myths of the gun debate is the notion that the FBI-NICS background check system is broken and probably beyond repair. Or to put it in the usual Gun Nation vernacular, we don’t any more gun-control laws because the laws we have now don’t work.  And then what happens is that someone who passes a NICS check does something stupid with a gun, like the Umpqua shooter or the man and wife in San Bernardino, and see, we told you so, the system really doesn’t work. Which then becomes the rationale for preventing background checks on all gun transfers because since the system doesn’t work, why ask it to do more?

nics              Actually, I think the system not only works very well but, as I am going to show below, many states are constantly trying to upgrade it so that it will work better.  The reason I think the system works is because the low denial rate (at or below 1%) tells me that most legal gun commerce is exactly that – people buying guns who are legally allowed to own guns.  The fact that ‘bad guys’ find other ways to get their hands on guns has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not NICS is working the way it was designed to work.

Despite rumor-mongering and plain stupidity to the contrary, the Brady system was not established as a crime-fighting measure; it was initially designed to delay the purchase of handguns for five days.  Would this procedure have kept guns out of the hands of criminals?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  But that was not the law’s intent.  The intent of the law, which was revised when an instant background check was substituted for the five-day waiting period to allow for a manual background check, was to prevent the impulsive purchase of handguns by anyone who wanted to use a gun to violently attack themselves or someone else.   When the National Research Council concluded their review of research on whether the NICS system had been an effective instrument in reducing crime, they didn’t say that NICS had been ineffective, they said that more research was needed in order to determine Brady’s true effects.  You can thank the Republicans who cut CDC gun-research funding for this gap.

When the Brady bill became law, every state was given two choices in order to comply with the requirement that every first-time gun sale first be approved with an instant background check.  The check could be run by the FBI-NICS operation located in West Virginia, or it could be run by the state itself, this latter system being known as a Point of Contact system, or POC.  Everyone uses the same three databases, which are compiled nationally but obviously require data from every state.  And here is the problem which creates headaches for NICS administrators and excuses for the gang which doesn’t want any controls over guns, namely, that in our federal system, every state has a different way of keeping track of crime, every state uses different software for their systems, every state has gobs of legacy data that is often not even online, every state developed its own criminal-data system without the slightest interest or concern about how crime data was being created, used or stored in any other state.

Now if you listen to Mike Huckabee and the other Republican clowns, you might think that the NICS system is so badly broken that there’s no sense in trying to fix it at all. In fact, over the last seven years, 26 states have spent more than $95 million improving their NICS data, the biggest chunk of dough going to New York, with second-place Florida not far behind.  Much of this money has gone for improving interfaces between criminal and mental health reporting, tracking involuntary commitments, updating county systems and training staff.  And when was the law passed which authorizes this funding?  Under a pro-gun President named George W. Bush.


The Center For American Progress Has Some Good Ideas To Help Obama Define Who’s Really Dealing In Guns.

This week the Center for American Progress issued a report recommending changes in the definition of being engaged in the business of selling guns. Clarifying what constitutes dealing in firearms would bring more gun transactions under the purview of the ATF and thus create more barriers to guns moving from one person to another without a NICS-background check.  The CAP report is a response to President Obama’s announcement after Roseburg that he might invoke executive authority to redefine how many gun transactions would demonstrate an ongoing business activity, as opposed to simply owning or collecting guns.

cap logo                Gun dealers have been regulated by the Federal Government since 1938 when a law was passed that required dealers to purchase a Treasury license for one dollar and follow some simple rules whenever they transferred a gun, namely, verifying that the individual to whom they delivered the gun lived in the same state where the dealer was located.

The 1938 law was completely revamped and the scope of government gun regulation widened to an unprecedented degree by the Gun Control Act of 1968.  Now dealers were not only required to verify the age and address of the customer, but also to verify that the prospective gun owner was not a member of various prohibited categories; i.e., felon, drug addict, fugitive, mental defective, and so forth. A gun dealer had no way of checking the veracity of such information, but at least there was a document on file for every over-the-counter sale.

Verifying whether an individual was telling the truth about his fitness to own a gun was what lay behind the Brady Bill passed in 1994.  In lieu of a national waiting-period on all gun purchases was a provision that required every federally-licensed dealer to contact the FBI who then verified that the customer was telling the truth.  But in order to access the FBI examiners, you had to be a federally-licensed dealer.  No federal dealer’s license, no contact with NICS.  Which is where the whole notion of ‘loopholes’ in the gun-licensing system came from; which is what Obama would like to close. And the easiest way to close the loophole, or at least make it smaller, is to define the word ‘dealer’ in a way that requires more people to become FFL-holders if they want to buy or sell guns.

The CAP report is a judicious and careful attempt to set out some criteria that could be used to determine who is really engaged in the business of selling guns.  It does not recommend any specific amounts of guns that might be transferred nor how much money someone needs to earn over any given period of time.  Rather, it looks at how various states define commercial enterprises and whether such definitions would be a useful guide to creating a more realistic way to establish that someone is going beyond just collecting or owning guns.

What the report doesn’t mention is that if the FFL imposes some sort of uniformity over dealers at the federal level, when we look at how states license gun dealers, there’s no uniformity at all.  Every state collects sales taxes, every state imposes and enforces other business regulations, but when it comes to guns, most states simply place the entire regulatory burden on the Feds and the ATF.  In order to receive an FFL, the prospective dealer must send a copy of the license application to the local cops, but if the particular locality doesn’t have any local laws covering gun dealers, the local gendarmerie could care less.

I hope the CAP report will be taken seriously by the President before he issues an Executive Order that more clearly defines what it means to engage in the commerce of guns.  I also hope he won’t publish an Executive Order that places more unfulfilled regulatory responsibilities on the ATF and provokes the usual ‘I told you so’ from the pro-gun gang. If it were up to that bunch, there would be no gun regulations at all.

Why Wait To Ask Congress For Universal Background Checks?

Shannon Watts just gave a detailed and articulate response to the Pew poll which shows that a slim majority of Americans now believe that “gun rights” are more important that “gun control.”  And as Shannon points out, the either-or question makes it really impossible for any poll respondent to address the fact that supporting the 2nd Amendment doesn’t ipso facto mean that someone  also can’t support common-sense measures to curb gun violence, like expanded background checks.

At this point the strategy of Shannon and other gun-sense advocates appears to focus on policies enacted at the state level (e.g., expanding background checks) combined with localized, grass-roots efforts to engage corporations like Target and Starbucks to subscribe to gun-free zones.  Given the 2013 defeat of Manchin-Toomey, energies at the federal level appear to be more distant and long-term, with the goal towards electing members of Congress who might eventually vote the other way. On the other hand, I happen to think that Manchin-Toomey was not quite the NRA bone-crusher that it was described to be.  If anything, I was surprised at the closeness of the Senate vote and I’m not sure that gun control at the federal level is as dead as many on both sides would like to believe.

         Shannon Watts

Shannon Watts

The fact is that had background checks been extended to cover all private transactions, and if, as Shannon says, private transactions account for 40% of all movement of guns, then what Manchin-Toomey represented was an enormous expansion of government control over what gun owners can and cannot do with their guns. This would have been the fourth time that the federal government, beginning in 1938, regulated the ownership and transfer of civilian guns, but in all three prior instances, the regulation was aimed at the behavior of federally-licensed dealers and said nothing about the behavior of gun owners themselves.

The 1938 law created the federal gun license and mandated that dealers could only sell guns to residents of their own state.  The original federal firearms license, or FFL, cost one buck.  The 1968 law, known as GCA68, established certain categories of ‘prohibited persons,’ i.e., felons, mentally ill, drug addicts, fugitives,, but again prohibited federally-licensed dealers, not individual gun owners, from engaging in transactions with such individuals and also prohibited private individuals from buying mail-order guns if they came from another state.  Finally, the 1993 Brady Bill updated the process that allowed dealers to determine by contacting the FBI at the point of sale whether the purchaser was telling the truth about not being prohibited from owning a gun.

The bill proposed after Sandy Hook was a horse of a different color altogether.  It left government regulation of federal dealers intact but for the first time gave government the right to regulate the behavior of gun owners themselves as to how, when and where those selfsame gun owners could sell or acquire guns.  In one fell swoop, the government would go from looking over the dealer’s shoulder while a transaction was being conducted inside the shop, to looking over the shoulder of every gun owner if/when that owner decided to make any change in the number or type of guns that he owned.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not making any kind of argument against the reasonableness of universal background checks.  What I am suggesting, however, is that extending background checks to almost all gun transactions is almost a tectonic change in the regulatory authority of the Federal government, and I don’t know any changes of such scope that happen all at once.

The bill that became GCA68 was first introduced in 1963.  The Brady Bill spent six years floating around Congress before it became law.  Both were signed by Presidents who just happened to come from gun-rich states.  I’m not so sure that energetic and effective advocates like Shannon need to forget going directly to Congress until after 2016.  After all, like we say in the gun business, it never hurts to show the product, even if this year’s buying season has come and gone.




A Gun Control Activist Reflects On His Battles With The NRA

The Wall Street Journal carried an interesting interview this morning with Mark Glaze who, until Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts combined to form Everytown, was the Executive Director of Bloomberg’s first gun-control group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns.  I’m not sure whether this group ever had a clear objective for what it wanted to do; some of its research efforts were outstanding, some were duds, there didn’t seem to be any attempt to forge a unified and active voice among the city mayors who comprised the membership, and their lobbying efforts in Washington certainly never paid off.  But that’s all history now as Everytown seems to be ramping up for the next round, meanwhile Mr. Glaze sat down with a WSJ reporter to reflect on what he had and hadn’t done.

What I found most interesting in his comments was an attempt to tie the failure of gun control in Washington to other issues that have nothing to do with guns.  In particular, Glaze focused on the controversy about NSA spying that emerged in the flight and prosecution of Anthony Snowden, as well as the botched roll-out of the website that prevented people from signing on to the ACA.  To quote Glaze: “There’s an almost perfect overlap, I think, between the people who are the most active and radicalized gun voters and people who just don’t like and trust the government very much.”

acaThe fact that both the website mess and Snowden’s revelations occurred long after the post-Sandy Hook gun control bill was dead and buried doesn’t really negate his general point of view.  The NRA has been attacking the Federal government’s alleged whittling away of gun rights for the last twenty years, in particular whenever a Democratic administration tries to enact even the most mild gun reforms.  In fact, the gun bill that was ultimately voted down in 2013 was a much less draconian measure – in terms of the scope of government regulation – than what Clinton got through the Congress in the form of the Brady Bill in 1993 and the assault weapons ban in 1994.

Glaze shouldn’t be faulted for seeing only the tip of the iceberg because his vantage-point for understanding the behavior of the NRA is, by definition, the very narrow perspective that surrounds anyone who’s work ties them to hanging around DC. The truth is that what makes the NRA so formidable is not the care and attention they lavish on elected officials in Washington (what they hand out for political campaigns is a tiny fraction of what other industries like banking and lawyers shell out every two years) but their efforts at the state level to promote issues like LTC.

In 1994, following passage of Brady, less than half the states operated under laws that made it relatively easy to qualify for concealed-carry permits, a number which has swelled to include just about every state, even though the Supreme Court explicitly stated that the 2nd Amendment did not cover carrying a gun outside the home for self defense when they ruled for Heller in 2008.  And while there are still a few jurisdictions, particularly large cities like Washington, New York and Chicago where LTC is basically not issued, probably 90% of all Americans, particularly in areas where everyone owns a gun, can qualify to carry a gun on their person with about as much difficulty as they would encounter in acquiring a license to operate a small boat.

If the NRA has been the main voice preventing more gun control in Washington, it’s because out in the hinterlands most of us can walk around with a gun in our pocket and pretend that we are the “good guys” who are on the lookout to protect everyone else from the “bad guys” with guns.  The fact that gun violence rates have stabilized or increased slightly in the years since LTC became the law of the land is one of those inconvenient facts that the NRA simply chooses to ignore.  But nobody ever said that a successful advocacy campaign requires having the facts on your side.  What the NRA knows how to do is reach gun owners in ways that really count, a strategy that the gun control folks still need to figure out.