There’s More To Reducing Gun Violence Than Expanding Background Checks.

If there’s one strategy to reduce gun violence on which just about everyone agrees, it’s expanding FBI-NICS background checks beyond the initial sale to make it more difficult for guns to wind up in the ‘wrong hands.’  The assumption behind this strategy is the idea that if every time a gun moves from one person to another, a background check would identify people whose behavior put them in one of those ‘prohibited’ categories (e.g., felon, habitual drug user, etc.) which has always been an indication for criminal use of a gun.

laws             Behind this assumption lies another assumption, the idea that most of the guns that eventually end up in the hands of the bad guys get there because someone with a clean record buys the gun, knowing that he or she is planning to give or sell the gun to someone who can’t pass a background check and, hence, can’t be the initial purchaser of the gun.  When such a purchase occurs, it is referred to as a ‘straw’ sale, and if the buyer or the person to whom the buyer gives the gun then sells it to someone else, it is referred to as gun ‘trafficking;’ these two behaviors – straw sales and gun trafficking – usually considered to be the way that most guns get into the ‘wrong’ hands.

There have been many studies, too numerous to mention here, which show that a majority of guns picked up at crime scenes come from some location other than the actual scene of the crime, often not just another city but from another state.  New York’s AG, Eric Schneiderman, issued a report which showed that of nearly 46,000 crime guns recovered in the state between 2010 and 2015, nearly three-quarters came from other states, the bulk from states located on Interstate 95, which happens to be the most direct route from gun-rich states like Georgia and Florida up to New York.

The problem with data which shows the origin of crime guns, both in New York and elsewhere, is that since only the first gun transaction can be traced in most states (although 18 states have extended NICS checks to handgun sales, or all gun show sales or all sales), the fact that a gun first sold in South Carolina ended up being used to kill someone in Long Island doesn’t really say anything about how that particular gun got from there to here.  And this is because in most states, the original owner of the gun doesn’t have to report when or why he no longer owns a particular gun.  Most states don’t require mandatory reporting of gun thefts, and few states require that police report stolen guns to the feds.  The only gun owners who must report missing or stolen guns to the ATF are federally-licensed gun dealers, and most dealers protect their inventory because replacing a stolen gun ain’t cheap.

Now for the first time a group of researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have published data on how guns that were picked up by the Pittsburgh PD actually went from the counter-top to the street.  Based on an analysis of 762 gun traces conducted by the Firearms Tracing Unit in 2008, the researchers established that while 80% of the guns were recovered from persons other than the legal owner, at least one-third were stolen (the actual number was probably substantially higher,)  but less than half of those thefts were reported to the police.  If this data is at all representative of the national scene, this means that upwards of 200,000 unreported guns get into ‘wrong hands’ each year without a single straw sale.

Neither expanded background checks or more diligence about straw sales has anything to do with stolen guns. And if gun owners were penalized for not reporting gun thefts, I guarantee you they would be more careful about securing their guns. And by the way, reporting a missing gun doesn’t violate any of those so-called 2nd Amendment ‘rights’ at all.

 

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Ending Gun Violence Means Understanding Gun Violence And Here’s A Good Start.

So now we have the second report in as many weeks that strongly points to the connection between gun violence and gun laws; i.e., less of the latter produces more of the former.  The first report came from the Center for American Progress (CAP) which found that states with fewer legal restrictions on guns have higher rates of gun violence; now we have another report issued by New York State’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, which shows that states with lax gun regulations also export more crime guns to other states, hence raising gun violence rates in states which often have very strict and comprehensive controls.

gun-violence           So the bottom line is that states that do not view guns as a threat to community safety not only make their own communities less safe but also help to make communities elsewhere dangerous as well.  And if you believe that this is in any way a new discovery, let me take you back the passage of the Federal Firearms Act in 1938.  The FFA38 was actually the second gun bill passed during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, the first being the 1934 law that regulated sale and ownership of full-automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns whose use became the staple of Hollywood gangster movies then and now.

The 1938 law moved the Federal government into gun regulation big-time, because it focused not on the control of these somewhat exotic and relatively unusual (and relatively expensive) machine guns, but established the regulation of standard, run-of-the-mill handguns and long guns which could be found in probably a majority of American homes. Moreover, the basic components of the 1938 law, even though much of it was revised by the Gun Control Act of 1968, created the regulatory environment which exists to the present day. To wit:

After 1938, anyone who wanted to be in the business of selling firearms, as opposed to simply collecting and transferring personal guns, had to acquire and operate the business with a federal firearms license issued by the Treasury Department.  Why the Treasury Department?  Because the license cost one buck, and anyone who paid anything to the U.S. Government paid to the U.S. Treasury.  The law also made it illegal if a felon, fugitive, or anyone ‘convicted of a crime of violence’ received a gun and, most important, required that federally-licensed gun dealers only transfer guns to individuals who were residents of the same state in which the dealer sold guns. The law was later revised to exempt long guns from the in-state purchase requirement (hence Lee Harvey Oswald was able to purchase and directly receive a rifle from a sporting-goods dealer in Chicago) but the requirement that handgun sales be limited to in-state transfers remained law from then until now.

Why has the government always required that handgun ownership be more rigorously regulated than long guns?  Because the basic purpose of federal gun regulations is to “provide support to Federal, State and local law enforcement officials in their fight against crime and violence.” So says the Gun Control Act of 1968, a law which, incidentally, was supported by the NRA.

Note that neither the 1938 gun law nor the law passed thirty years later or, for that matter, the third big law passed in 1994 attempted to regulate guns per se; all three laws were attempts to break the connection between guns, crime and violence by defining which individuals could acquire guns. But none of these laws defined gun violence for what it really is.

Gun violence is a pathogen and most pathogens spread through human contact, which is certainly the case with the pathogen caused by guns.  We still don’t know exactly how, when or why this human contact takes place, but the reports issued by CAP and New York’s AG provide a good start. They also provide valid methodological templates to be used for further research. In sum, these reports deserve to be read, discussed and their value applauded and understood.