The Only Way To Avoid Gun Accidents Is Never Load The Gun.

There a lot of buzz going around the GVP community today about several gun deaths that were apparently the result of dropped guns.  One of the fatalities was a 16-year old girl in Houston, whose father’s gun may have discharged when he dropped it (the news report isn’t clear) the other was a 12-year old in Mississippi who came back from hunting, a gun was dropped and – BAM!

 

peacemaker

Colt Peacemaker

In 2015, the CDC says that the death toll from unintentional shootings was 489, of which 48 were under the age of 14.  These numbers may be off by as much as half, because if someone shoots someone else accidentally, state laws sometimes require that the death be ruled as a homicide even though the shooter isn’t usually charged.  But when a gun is dropped and goes off, nobody’s to ‘blame’ but the design of the gun itself.  But that’s not really true and the purpose of this column is to explain why.

Pardon me for a slight technical digression, but in order for a gun to go off, there has to be at least one round of live ammunition sitting in the breech.  The breech is the part of the gun where the live round sits with the front facing the barrel and the rear facing a firing pin.  When the firing pin is pushed into the back of the round, the chemicals in the primer create a spark, the spark ignites the powder and the explosion creates gasses which expand and push the bullet through the barrel and out of the gun. In other words, for any gun to fire, some mechanical action has to occur which pushes the firing pin into the shell.  Which is usually done by the hammer which falls on the firing pin after the trigger (which is connected to the hammer) is pulled.  Get it?

Now where things get tricky is in lining up the live shell in front of the firing pin. Because if there’s no shell in front of the firing pin, no matter how hard you push the firing pin forward, the gun simply can’t go off. When guns go off because they are dropped, what really happens is that the gun hits the floor with enough force to push the firing pin into the live round without pulling the trigger at all.

America’s oldest gun manufacturer, Colt, became famous for its Single Action Army revolver called the “Peacemaker’ or the gun that ‘won the West.’ It was known as the ‘six-shooter’ but we called it the ‘five-shooter’ because until the company redesigned its firing pin and hammer assembly, if you had the hammer over a live round in the cylinder the gun would go off sometimes just by accidentally touching the hammer as you went to pick up the gun. How many millions of these guns sold before Colt fixed the problem sometime around 1985? Remington finally settled a 20-year class action suit because the bolt in most of its hunting rifles had a funny way of going off even with the safety switch on.

The gun industry has been patting itself on the back of late, claiming that accidental gun deaths have declined to ‘historic lows,’ a result, of course, of the safety programs run by the NRA and the NSSF. I suspect that what’s also behind the decline is the spread of child access prevention (CAP) laws, but those laws penalize the gun owner if an underage person grabs a gun.  How many times does the gun owner himself or a friend lose an arm, a leg or a life because – oops! – I dropped the gun?

You can design or redesign the safety mechanism all you want, but a gun is a mechanical device and mechanical devices sometimes don’t work the way they should.  I don’t know how many of the 40 million American gun owners pick up one of their guns each day, but the more guns that are picked up, the more that will drop on the floor.

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How Was The West Won? Not With A Gun.

Want to see where the West was really won?  You don’t have to go out West.  All you need to do is take I-70 out from DC, drive through the tiny West Virginia finger that runs north from Wheeling, and then follow State Route 7 alongside the Ohio River until you roll into the town of East Liverpool, which is actually on the Ohio side of the river itself.

survey            Now when you get into East Liverpool grab State Route 39 and follow it along the river until you reach a little stone monument (about a mile out of town) that marks something called the ‘Point of Beginning,’ which is where the West was actually won.  This is the spot (the exact spot is 1,000 feet south of the monument which is now underwater) from which almost the entire remainder of the country was surveyed beginning in 1785.  And why did the colonial government begin surveying and mapping the immense westward landscape three years before the Constitution was ratified and the United States came to exist?  Because farmers, traders and all sorts of other folks were moving beyond the borders of the original colonies and the issues of who owned what piece of land and who could own what piece of land had to be resolved.

When we talk about the western part of the continental United States we’re not talking about some country’s little back yard. I recall, for example, driving through Monaco which covers roughly 2 square kilometers of land mass and thinking that it really didn’t matter, from a territorial point of view, whether this tiny sliver of soil was attached to France or not. But when we talk about the territory from the western bank of the Ohio River to the Pacific coast, we are talking about 1.8 billion acres of land, and that’s not geographic chump-change in anyone’s book.

The problem in 1785 however, is that all of this land had at one point belonged to the British Crown who, in typical feudal fashion, had given out hunks of it to this colonial administrator or that.  But all of those arrangements became null and void by what happened at the Battle of Yorktown and its aftermath in 1781, and while it would be another seven years until the United States ratified its own independent status as a sovereign nation, deciding what to do with this enormous, largely vacant territory couldn’t wait.

Well, it wasn’t exactly vacant.  There did happen to be a lot of human beings living in many parts of this extraordinary landscape, Jefferson referred to them politely as ‘dependent nations,’ but a Supreme Court decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh, decided in 1823, basically legitimized what had been going on for the previous hundred years or more, namely, that indigenous populations in colonial zones had no property rights at all.  Oh well, oh well, oh well.

The push westward really began in earnest after we bought 827,000 square miles of territory from France in 1803.  We then picked up the southwest from Mexico in 1843 and grabbed the northwest from Canada in 1846. All of this territory was initially owned by the government, much of it would be sold, rented or leased to private interests over the intervening years. Even Cliven Bundy and his idiot sons would end up leasing (but not paying for) land from the Feds.  But the bottom line is that what made this immense transfer of land from public to private hands possible wasn’t the Colt Peacemaker or the Winchester Repeater – the guns that ‘won’ the West – it was the surveyor’s measuring rods and chains which were first used by employees of the Federal Land Office in 1785.

During the Age of Trump the gun industry will try its level best to argue that America owes its existence and freedom to gun ownership. After all, isn’t the whole point of gun ownership to help make America great again?  And when were we greatest?  When we won the West.  Except the West wasn’t won with guns.

 

 

 

‘The Gunning Of America’ Is A Good And Serious Book.

Pamela Haag describes herself as an “award-winning nonfiction writer, essayist, cultural commentator, and historian.”  And she has just published a new book, The Gunning of America, which fills some interesting gaps in the history of America’s first manufacturing industry, a.k.a., small arms.  The book is based on painstaking and detailed research in documents from, among others, the company archives of Winchester, Remington and Colt, supplemented by generous citations from primary and secondary sources, including personal correspondence of the early gun makers, articles and notices from the daily press and a pretty comprehensive knowledge of other contemporary, secondary works.  In other words, this is a serious history book.

         Winchester 1873

Winchester 1873

What Haag attempts to show is that guns may not have been an intrinsically American phenomenon had it not been for the marketing energies and activities of the founders of companies like Colt, Remington and Winchester, all of whom attempted to push as many guns as possible into domestic and foreign markets in order to protect and improve company bottom lines. On more than one occasion, companies like Colt and Smith & Wesson were only able to keep the factory doors open by aggressively pursuing government contracts both here and abroad; the senior management of Winchester never stopped reminding the sales force of the necessity to sell every single gun.

One of the gaps filled by this book is its focus on guns not as representing political beliefs or cultural attitudes, but as a business in and of itself.  The author quite rightly says that “the gun business, as a business, remains invisible, a secret in the closet of the gun culture,” and this book is an effort to bring it out of the closet, so to speak, and examine it on its own business terms.

The problem in trying to look at the gun business through a business prism develops, however, when the author attempts to compare how the gun business marketed itself in past times as opposed to the way it explains itself now.  The author is absolutely correct when she says that current-day efforts by the industry to picture itself as ‘exceptional’ based on a unique relationship that America has with guns is not an accurate picture of how and why the civilian ownership of hundreds of millions of small arms came about.  Rather, the idea that every American should have a gun was a marketing strategy of gun makers from the earliest times precisely because some way had to be found to convince consumers that guns were not just another ordinary product that they could either own or do without.

What makes Pamela Haag’s argument somewhat problematic, however, is that while she captures nicely and accurately the marketing message employed by the gun business today, she basically ends her discussion of the actual workings of the gun industry in the 1920’s, nearly a century ago.  So while she is correct in saying that by 1900 gun sales were relying on demand caused by “desire and affinity, rather than utility,” the marketing message has now swung back to the argument for utility, except that utility is now defined in a much different way.

The reason that the numero uno gun company in America happens to be an Austrian outfit by the name of Glock is because the gun industry has replaced the iconic figure of the gun totin’ Western sheriff (or the gun-totin’ San Francisco cop) with the gun-totin’ armed citizen whose right to defend himself and his family doesn’t just derive from the 2nd Amendment, but comes straight from God.  And if you think I’m overstating the case for the alliance between guns, concealed-carry and the Almighty, just listen to Wayne-o’s convocation speech delivered at Liberty University earlier this year.

I like books that are well written and well researched and this one is both.  And I agree with Pam Haag that in our efforts to reduce gun violence the spotlight needs to shine more brightly on gun makers themselves. Too bad she couldn’t gain access to the archive of the NSSF.

 

A Court Decision That Uses The Gun Industry’s Own Fiction Against It.

Right after the Sandy Hook massacre, both New York and Connecticut passed laws that tightened up restrictions on owning ‘black’ guns, a.k.a., the military-style AR rifles like the type Adam Lanza used to kill 26 adults and young kids.  The laws basically toughened the earlier assault weapons bans, provoking immediate outcries from the pro-gun gang who challenged the laws based on their inalienable 2nd-Amendment rights.  After all, the 2008 Heller decision protected private ownership of all guns that are “in common use,” and what could be more common than AR rifles of which probably more than four million have been manufactured over the last twenty years?

bushmaster logo2                The gun industry began promoting black guns in the 1990s when they realized that hunting and traditional sporting use of guns was dying out.  This promotion took two forms: on the one hand creating the fiction that black guns, like all guns protected us from crime; on the other hand creating the equally beguiling fiction that military-style weapons were no different from other, traditional rifles since they could only be fired in semi-automatic mode.

The industry went so far as to create an entirely new shooting tradition, replacing the phrase

‘assault rifle’ with the nomenclature ‘modern sporting rifle’ so as to pretend that an AR-15 is nothing other than the same, old hunting gun that sportsmen have for generations been taking out to the woods.  And for those who like to imagine themselves mowing down ISIS or Al Queda in the streets and alleys of Philadelphia or New York, the guns being sold by Bushmaster, Colt, Stag and other black-gun manufacturers are referred to as ‘tactical’ weapons, which everyone knows is simply an assault rifle with a different name.

Both the CT and NY laws were challenged and upheld in District Court; now the Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit, has upheld both laws again.  What is interesting about this decision, indeed remarkable, is the fact that it is based not just on the government’s authority to regulate guns that are in “common use,” but to regulate these particular types of weapons based on their definition as created and promoted by the gun industry itself!  The Circuit Court accepted the notion that black guns are just another type of sporting rifle, and it was the acknowledgement that black guns are no different from other types of sporting guns that ultimately legitimized the assault-rifle bans in Connecticut and New York.

Plaintiffs in this case argued that there were more than four million AR-15 rifles owned by civilians and that these guns, like other civilian weapons, could only be fired in semi-automatic mode.  As the Court said, “This much is clear: Americans own millions of the firearms that the challenged legislation prohibits.” Further, the Court also accepted the notion that many Americans keep an AR-15 in their home for self-defense.  Given those circumstances, how could the Circuit Court decide that prohibiting civilian ownership of such weapons was not a violation of 2nd-Amendment rights?  Because what the Court did was take the gun industry’s own fiction about these guns and stand it on its head.

The industry’s marketing of black guns as ‘sporting’ rifles is based on one thing and one thing only; namely, these weapons can only be shot in semi-auto mode.  Never mind that you can deliver up to 60 rounds of ammunition in thirty seconds or less; never mind that the .223 round has a lethality specifically designed to kill or injure human targets; never mind that many military and law enforcement units also deploy the semi-auto gun.  That residents in New York and Connecticut can own all kinds of semi-automatic rifles which do not contain certain military-style features means that the ban on AR-style rifles is not a prohibition of semi-automatic weapons at all.

As a noted Supreme Court justice once said, “History also has its claims.” And one of those claims is that the 2nd Amendment doesn’t give the gun industry the right to invent a tall tale to justify how it tries to sell guns.

 

 

It’s Time We Stopped Letting The NRA Set The Rules For The Debate About Guns.

I have been following the gun debate since 1963 when Senator Dodd introduced a bill that eventually became the law known as GCA68.  The reason I got interested in gun law was because my great-Uncle Ben was manufacturing a crummy, little 22-caliber revolver that broke after the 2nd or 3rd shot.  It was a classic Saturday Night Special and Dodd wanted to get rid of those guns to help maintain the market for real Connecticut gun makers like Winchester, Ruger and Colt.  So what I say now is based on following the argument about guns for more than fifty years.

2A                For at least twenty of those fifty years, perhaps thirty, the NRA and its pro-gun allies have been telling us that guns aren’t a problem as long as they don’t get into the wrong hands.  And if they do fall into the wrong hands, we can count on all the good guys with guns to set matters straight.  Mad Dog Lott, one of the chief propagandists for the NRA, said it last night like this: “Guns can do bad things, but they can also do good things.” He then went on to claim, without a shred of evidence, that he knew of “dozens” of mass shootings that were prevented by good guys with guns.

I don’t really care about whether John Lott can distinguish between what is true and what is false.  What concerns me is the idea that an event as horrific as yesterday’s shooting could be discussed or even thought about in terms of ‘good’ versus ‘bad.’  It has nothing to do with good or bad, right or wrong.  It has to do with a moral imperative: Thou Shalt Not Kill.  And despite the attempts by the NRA and sycophantic jack-offs like John Lott to reduce such awful events to a tit-for-tat analysis, we need to stop allowing the pro-gun community to set the terms of the debate.

A good friend who happens to be one our most important public health researchers on gun violence said to me last night, “You know Mike, the problem is that if we are going to claim the high moral ground on this issue, we need to make sure that everything we say can be indisputably supported by the facts.” With all due respect, that’s really besides the point.  When you stick a gun in someone’s face and pull the trigger, you’re committing an act of gun violence.  And it doesn’t matter if you pull the trigger because you’re trying to protect yourself or protect anyone else.  You’ve committed a violent act because you used a gun.  And the truthfulness of that last sentence doesn’t require any research at all.

My problem is that whenever there’s an act of gun violence someone from the pro-gun gang ends up on radio or television spinning the ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ argument again and again.  The NRA is relentless in this respect, their self-appointed minions like Mad Dog Lott endlessly promote the armed citizen nonsense without regard for the facts, and sooner or later they gain the upper hand because the other side of the argument doesn’t yet match their tenacity or resolve.  If the White House is painted red in 2017, I guarantee we will have a national, concealed-carry law that will make the armed citizen as American as apple pie.

I think that groups fighting to reduce gun violence need to come together and develop some kind of ongoing media effort to proactively engage America in a serious debate about gun violence, rather than a debate based on the necessity of preserving 2nd-Amendment rights.  If Hillary wants to lead a discussion that “balances” the 2nd Amendment with “preventive measures,” that’s her business.  What I want is to turn on my television or radio and hear someone talk about the fact that more guns equals more gun violence.  It’s as simple as that and it needs to be said again and again.

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