More Guns Equals More Gun Violence: A Response From David Hemenway

murder  Yesterday I wrote a column in which I argued that using the gun-ownership rate in the U.S. as the ‘driver’ for gun violence is flawed if we count all guns, rather than only counting handguns which are involved in nearly all gun violence.  The esteemed gun-violence researcher, whose book, Private Guns – Public Health, sets a standard for research in the field, sent a response and has given me permission to post it here:

Dear Mike.

    I beg to differ.  Three of the key factors which makes the US such an outlier compared to the other high income countries with regard to firearms are that (a) we have the weakest gun laws, (b) we have the most guns per capita, and (c) our guns are disproportionately handguns.  By (c) I don’t mean to imply that most of the guns in our gun stock are handguns, though the US handgun/long gun ratio has been growing.  Instead I mean that we have a far higher percentage of handguns in our gun stock compared to the other high-income countries.  For example, Canada has a sizeable number of long guns, but fairly few handguns.  So if we calculate per capita handgun ownership for developed countries, the U.S. becomes even more of an outlier.  And we know that most violent crime involves handguns rather than long guns; handguns are much more likely than long guns to be used in violent crime.  

    We could disaggregate handguns still further into those more (vs less) likely to be used in violent crime in the US, and if we did, I suspect that the US would become even more of an outlier compared to the other high income countries (in terms of the number of the “type of handguns likely to be used in violent crime” divided by the country’s population) –but I don’t have data on how many of the type of “handguns likely to be used in violent crime” are in the gun stocks of the other high-income countries, so I can’t prove my suspicion.    

     Cheers,

         David

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Want To Reduce Gun Violence? Go After The Guns Which Cause The Violence.

If there is one argument that has found its way into every, single comment ever made by every, single gun-control organization, it’s the idea that the U.S. suffers from an extraordinary high level of gun violence because Americans own so many guns. The basis for this argument is research published by our good friend David Hemenway, who explains the fact that the U.S. homicide rate is 7 times higher than other advanced countries, driven by a gun-homicide that is 25 times higher, thanks to all those guns we have floating around.

chicago cops             Since we don’t require universal or even partial gun registration (no mater what Gun-nut Nation says) we actually have no idea how many guns are in private hands. The estimates go from a low of 270 million to a high of nearly 400 million, so let’s say that the real number is somewhere in between. Nevertheless, whether we take the high or the low estimate, we are still the only country whose per-capita gun ownership number approaches or exceeds one, even if the percentage of Americans who actually have a gun in their residence is somewhere between 30 and 40 percent.

The only problem is that while it appears to be an obvious argument bottom line that our fatal violence rate is a function of the existence of all those guns, the argument happens to be wrong. Why? Because most of the guns sitting around in basements, garages or even in living rooms or bedrooms happen to be guns that are just lying around.  And if a particular type or model of gun doesn’t play any role in the events which we refer to as ‘gun violence,’ then why should the existence of this type of gun be counted as having anything to do with gun violence at all?  It shouldn’t, but it is.

The more guns = more gun violence argument is undercut by some data published by our friends at The Trace, who analyzed the types of guns recovered by the Chicago cops in 2014. Of the total 4,505 guns picked up by the cops that year, nearly 40% (1,757 guns) appear to be the most popular handgun models, and while less than 4% of the confiscated weapons were shotguns, the total number of assault rifles was exactly five. How many bolt-action hunting or target rifles were picked up? None.

Of the 1,757 most popular handguns confiscated by Chicago PD, most of those models, like the Smith & Wesson VE and the various Glocks, didn’t even exist prior to 1985.  And 1985 is an important year to use as a yardstick for estimating the size of the civilian gun arsenal, because that was the year, according to Gary Kleck (Point Blank, Guns and Violence in America) that the number of weapons in private hands approached or exceeded 200 million guns.

Since 1985, the gun industry has manufactured another 140 million guns, of which roughly half are shotguns and rifles, the latter including at least 10 million or so assault rifles, which are rarely picked up by the cops. What this all boils down to is that the total number of civilian-owned guns which wind up contributing to gun violence is somewhere around 70 million or less. It’s certainly not the 300 million figure that is bandied around by Gun-control Nation and their research friends in public health.

If we calculate per capita gun ownership based on the guns used in violent crimes, rather than all guns held within the civilian population, the U.S. gun-ownership number drops from being way ahead of everyone else to somewhere in the middle of the pack. Would a per-capita gun ownership number which would be a fraction of the number currently used change the degree to which gun ownership could explain our excessively high rate of fatal crime? It would.

Want to use laws to reduce gun violence?  Base the laws and regulations on a better understanding of how guns are and aren’t used in violence and crime. It’s not like the data isn’t there.

What The ATF Doesn’t Tell You About Gun Dealers.

Now that The New York Times has pronounced that gun dealers are getting away with murder because the ATF lets all these rogue dealers stay in business no matter how many crime guns they sell, and now that the oracle of gun violence prevention, our friend Daniel Webster from Johns Hopkins has further declared that this article is a ‘must read’ because, after all, the NRA makes sure that all gun regulations are weaker than they should be, perhaps we might take a few minutes to set the record straight.

shop             I’m not saying that the article by Ali Watkins is wrong. But the headline, which I’m sure was stuck on to her interesting reportage came out of whatever department tries to attract readers to the NYT site.  The headline says: ‘When Guns Are Sold Illegally, A.T.F. Is Lenient On Punishment.’  No wonder Webster says this is a ‘must read.’ After all, he has been a leading proponent of the need to strengthen licensing at the counter-top through extending background checks to secondary sales.

There’s only one problem with Webster’s promotion of this article. If you actually read the whole thing, Ms. Watkins is saying much more than just that the ATF is letting all these bad-guy gun dealers off the hook. In fact, the whole idea of leniency on the part of the how the ATF regulates gun shops has to be seen in a much broader context which is discussed by Ali Watkins in detail. Maybe Webster doesn’t read details.

The article is based on ATF gun-shop inspection reports which Brady received from the ATF. For obvious reasons, some of the fields in the reports are redacted out, nor does the report necessarily contain all the information that would allow someone to determine the degree to which the ATF is actually letting dealers stay in business whose behavior should really get them shut down. What really comes out from these reports, however, is that conducting an inspection of a gun shop under the rules and regulations of GCA68 (the federal law which set up the entire regulatory system and placed it under the purview of the ATF) often requires judgements to be made for which the law either gives vague guidelines on how to proceed or no guidelines at all.

Watkins gives an example of a gun shop which was cited for releasing several guns without conducting a background check, and even though the shop had evidently failed to conduct a background check on another transfer at some point in time, thus making the second failure a ‘willful’ violation of the law, what this means is that the 4473 background check form did not contain information about when the background check took place (the requisite field on the form was blank) hence, it is assumed that no background check actually occurred.

Under law, the FBI cannot retain NICS information for more than 24 hours after a background check occurs. But if the requisite data is missing from the form, the ATF inspector has to cite this as a violation because absent the data, it is assumed that the check didn’t occur. And you wonder how, at the review level, a dealer can remain in business after committing such a serious offense? Give me a break, okay?

There isn’t a retail gun dealer in the United States who doesn’t know how to build a nice stash of guns and sell them illegally without involving himself in regulatory procedures at all. Whenever someone sells you a gun, and most gun shops have at least 40% used guns, all the dealer has to do is neglect to enter the gun into his acquisition list, which means that from a regulatory perspective, the gun doesn’t exist at all.

The ATF would like you to believe that the only thing which stands between all those rogue dealers and safety and security throughout the United States is the inspections they perform, albeit without enough manpower to do a proper job. Anyone who actually buys that nonsense has never stood behind a counter and sold guns.

The New York Times Weighs In On Crime Guns.

Now that The New York Times devotes a portion of its editorial space to gun violence, we are treated to the contribution of op-ed writer Charles Blow.  And what Blow has decided to talk about is what is truly the elephant in the living room when it comes to gun violence, namely, the issue of stolen guns.  Obama mentioned the issue twice in the official White House press release outlining his new EO agenda on guns, but he tied it to expanding background checks by bringing more gun transactions under the rubric of regulated sales.

atf              To his credit, Blow dug up Sam Bieler’s 2013 article which cites data from Phil Cook’s 1997 article which estimates that as many as 500,000 guns might be stolen each year.  And having discovered this incredible number, Blow then throws up several remedies for the problem which will have no real impact at all.  They won’t have any impact because registering guns or requiring insurance for their ownership simply isn’t going to occur.  As for the idea that gun theft will go down as safe guns enter the civilian arsenal, even if a few were to finally hit the market, we still have 300 million+ unsafe guns lying around.

On the other hand, there are some steps that could be taken right now that would, I believe, have a substantial impact on the ability of law enforcement to identify and trace crime guns, a process which right now occurs in the most slipshod or piecemeal fashion when it occurs at all.  And these steps wouldn’t even require any legislation or executive orders; they could be accomplished easily and quickly if someone, anyone, would make the regulatory division of the ATF do what it is really supposed to do.

Why does the GVP advocacy community put so much time and effort into pushing the expansion of NICS-background checks into secondary transfers and sales? Because the ATF has been whining for 20 years that they can only trace a gun through its first, legal sale.  This is a lie.  The fact is that every time a gun is acquired by an FFL dealer it must be listed in his Acquisition & Disposition book.  This A&D book, along with the 4473 forms used to conduct background checks, can be inspected by the ATF whenever they enter a store.  Now It happens that 40% or more guns that are sold by retail dealers are used guns, many of which were sold previously out of the same store. Or they were first sold by the gun shop in the next town. Can the ATF ask a dealer to tell them the particulars of the last, as opposed to the first sale of a particular gun?  Of course they can – they own the entire contents of the A&D book.

The ATF trumpets the development of time-to-crime data which, they say, alerts them to questionable dealer behavior because the average TTC right now is about 12 years, so if guns sold by a particular dealer have a much shorter TTC, that dealer must be pushing guns out the back door.  But the fact is that since 40% of the sale dates of guns used to calculate TTC might not represent the last, legal sale, the TTC numbers published by the ATF are, to be polite, meaningless at best.

The ATF still sends trace requests by fax; the rest of the world, including all gun dealers, has discovered email as a more accurate and certainly efficient way to communicate back and forth.  If the ATF required dealers to keep their A&D book in Excel (which they actually recommend,) the dealer could scan his entire book immediately looking for a particular serial number and the ATF and local police would have a better chance of figuring out how and when a crime gun moved from legal to illegal hands.

You don’t need a new law, you don’t an Executive Order, you don’t need anything except some basic knowledge about the gun business in order to figure this out.