That Old NICS-Background Check Number Just Keeps Floating Around.

My friends at Harvard and Northeastern have just given us another tantalizing bit of data from their new survey on gun-owning Americans, in this case an estimate of how many guns are transferred from one person to another without a background check. And what they claim is that roughly one out of every five guns that were acquired over the last two years moved between one person and another without a NICS check. Which is roughly half the percentage of unchecked sales from the figure provided by Philip Cook who is given credit in today’s Trace for stating that “as many as 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without a background check” in 1994.

nicsExcept there’s one little problem.  This 40% estimate has been floating around and repeated by every gun-control advocacy organization lo these many years, but that’s not what Professor Cook actually said.  What Phil Cook actually said was, “We conclude that approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions involved an FFL and hence were subject to Federal regulations on such matters as out-of-State sales, criminal history checks, and recordkeeping.” And he couldn’t have said it because there was no background check system in 1994.  The current FBI-NICS system wasn’t up and running until late 1998.  Which is why the background check data published by the FBI begins in 1999.  Oh well, what’s the difference?  A year here, a year there – no big deal, right?

I bought my first gun from an FFL-dealer in 1976.  I had just moved from New Jersey to South Carolina, arrived on a Tuesday, traded my Jersey driver’s license for a South Carolina license on Wednesday, and bought a Ruger Mark I on Thursday.  I filled out the federal form, showed the dealer my driver’s license, gave him a hundred bucks and got the gun. All the dealer knew was that I said I had not committed a serious crime.  He didn’t even know whether I was a South Carolina resident because I could have moved to another state and not yet exchanged for a license somewhere else. So like Phil Cook said, I was ‘subject to Federal regulations’ when I bought that gun.  Big friggin’ deal.

And this is how allegedly reliable information floats around the gun world; a reputable scholar (if they gave a Nobel Prize in gun research I would nominate Phil Cook) is misquoted, what he said is then used to justify God knows how many attempts – some successful, some not – to widen the scope of background checks, and now we have the next, serious attempt to figure out how many gun transfers are caught by the background-check system, using what Phil Cook actually didn’t say to compare the progress we’ve made over the last twenty years.

To Professor Cook’s credit, he admits that he never directly asked participants about background checks, so we have actually no way of figuring out whether the new published data from Miller, Hepburn and Azrael should be a cause for rejoicing or not.  But before everyone jumps on the bandwagon and starts the New Year off by celebrating this bit of hopeful news, let me break it to you gently.

If you think the NRA’s ability to cast doubt on serious gun research was a factor in convincing a majority of Americans that having a gun lying around the house is a good thing, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  Because it’s one thing when the argument is made by an organization like the NRA which is in business to help gun makers sell guns.  The first policy statement that (ugh) Donald Trump ever made on the campaign trail was a statement backing gun ‘rights’ and denying the need for expanded background checks.

The Gun-sense community isn’t going up against a former Congressional aide who sits in Fairfax, VA and tapes a video now and again.  The opposition is now be led by the Commander in Chief, who would just love to tweet that gun-control advocates don’t know the facts.  So what we say better be right.

CORRECTION:  The article in The Trace did not identify Professor Cook by name as the individual who first stated that 40% of gun transfers did not involve a background check. The article referred to ‘experts’ which I assumed were Cook and his co-author Jens Ludwig since they published their work, referred to above, in 1994.

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How Easy Is It To Buy A Gun? Not As Easy As The Boston Globe Thinks.

As I am sure everyone knows, Gun-nut Nation has been celebrating what they claim is a tremendous surge in gun sales which started when Obama moved into the White House and allegedly hasn’t let up.  The result for a publicly-owned company like Smith & Wesson is an increase in share price from $5 in 2009 to nearly $26 last week; for the gun industry in general a conviction that guns are becoming so mainstream that sooner or later there will be one in every American home.

dealers           Actually, surveys about gun ownership keep pointing to a different reality; namely, that fewer and fewer people own more and more guns.  The gun researchers at Harvard and Northeastern have done the latest study on gun owners and found that only 22% of adults own guns, of whom 3% re considered ‘super’ owners because their gun stash is between 8 and upwards of 100 guns.

But surveys conducted by phone or computer are one thing; hard data is something else. And here is where the problem gets sticky, because the data that is usually used to figure out how many are being sold is probably less exact and reliable than the surveys of gun owners like the Harvard-Northeastern survey that’s currently making the rounds.

I am referring, of course, to the monthly totals of FBI-NICS background checks published by the ATF, which shows a nearly 80% increase in annual checks between 2009 and he current year. The problem with this number, is that it hides more than it explains, because NICS is utilized for any over-the-counter transaction which means that used guns, which for many shops count for 30-40% of their inventory, are not being sold for the first time but are being resold.  NICS is also used for checking the issuance and status of gun licenses, this type of check has recently been responsible for 25% of all NICS calls, and then there is the requirement in a growing number of states that all gun transactions take place at the countertop whether the dealer sold the gun or not. I’m not saying that gun sales haven’t increased under Obama – of course they have.  But I’m not about to drink the gun industry Kool Aid which, if true, would make it appear that just about everyone out there is grabbing a gun.

On the other hand, it’s not only Gun-nut Nation mixing up a pitcher of Kool-Aid for everyone to drink; Gun-sense Nation also has a tendency from time to time to offer up their own flavor of Kool-Aid when it comes to discussions about how many people buy or own guns. I am talking in this instance to a story that just appeared in The Boston Globe in which the reporter, Matt Rocheleau, looked at the ATF listing of gun dealers for Massachusetts and discovered, much to his concern, that the Bay State has more people holding federal firearms licenses (FFL) than it has cities and towns. According to Rocheleau, there are 389 license-holders in Massachusetts and only 351 municipalities, with some locations having as many as six or more – oh my God!  If you live in Massachusetts, it sure must be easy to buy a gun.

There’s only one little problem with this article – it bears no relationship to reality at all.  You can have as many FFLs as you want, but if you don’t have a state dealer’s license you can’t sell a gun to anyone except yourself.  And you can’t even sell a gun to yourself unless it is approved for civilian ownership in Massachusetts both by the Executive Office of Public Safety and the AG; which means you can’t own a new Glock, Springfield or Taurus handgun, as well as any gun that looks like an AR-15.

I’m not surprised when writers for Gun-nut Nation take liberties with the truth because, after all, their job is to promote guns. But when The Boston Globe promotes their version of gun sense, at least they should get it right.

Where Do Crime Guns Come From? Not Necessarily From Where You Think.

My friends at The Trace have just published a document that has floated around gun circles since it first appeared in 2003 as an affidavit in a liability case against the gun industry that was one of a number of class-action torts which came to a crashing end in 2005.  Bob Ricker, the deposition’s author, had been an NRA attorney and gun-industry lobbyist who then went over to the ‘other side’ and began working in favor of more stringent industry regulations as a way to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’

gun safe              Much of what is in this document was similar to what the Clinton Administration said about the gun industry when it tried to get gun makers to adopt better self-policing in return for an immunity from class-action suits.  This effort ultimately went nowhere, but much of what Ricker claims to have been standard practice in the industry has influenced discussions within the GVP community, along with shaping strategies that are followed by GVP advocate to this day.  Which therefore leads me to ask two questions: (1). What does Ricker actually say, and (2). Is what he says really true?

Here’s the key point as quoted from the affidavit itself: “The firearms industry has long known that the diversion of firearms from legal channels to the black market occurs principally at the distributor/dealer level.” Not only does the firearms industry know this, but so does everyone else.  And the fact that the industry, according to Ricker, had not taken “constructive voluntary action to prevent firearms from ending up in the illegal gun market” is, in and of itself, neither here nor there.  The reason it’s neither here nor there is that the one, voluntary action that Ricker mentions (Par. 12 of the affidavit) is that manufacturers and wholesalers could more closely monitor the sales practices of dealers, rather than just shipping guns to anyone with a valid FFL.

Ricker’s affidavit goes on to tie better policing of FFL business practices to the illegal diversion of guns to criminal hands through straw sales, gun shows and the like.  The only problem is that while we have all heard about ‘bad apple’ dealers as well as the proliferation of unregulated internet sales as two sources of illegal guns, nobody including the ATF has ever come up with an evidence-based number for exactly how many guns move from legal to illegal commercial channels each year.  Garen Wintemute estimates that as many as 40,000 straw sales were attempted annually, but he has no data on how many of those attempts actually result in a gun moving from an FFL’s inventory into illegal hands.

Let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and pretend that all of those 40,000 attempted straw sales go through.  Sounds like a lot of guns going into the wrong hands, doesn’t it?  In fact, it’s a pittance compared to the way in which most guns in this country wind up in the wrong hands, and I don’t notice anyone talking about that issue at all.

Back in 1994, Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig published the most comprehensive survey on gun ownership that I have ever seen. Now if the Nobel Prize Committee decided to give an award for gun research, it would have to go to Phil Cook.  He not only practically invented the entire field of gun violence research, but his work, then and now, is impeccable and should be accepted without question as the best of breed.

And what did he learn about how guns get into the wrong hands?  He learned that perhaps as many as 600,000 guns were stolen every year, this at a time when the total number of guns owned by Americans was 50% less than it is now!  Are you telling me that we can have a substantive conversation about reducing gun violence without asking how to prevent the theft of guns? Gun theft isn’t the elephant in the GVP living room, it’s the whole house.

 

Dana Loesch Opens Her Mouth About Guns And Gets It Wrong Again.

When the NRA has to join forces with the paranoid fantasists who shoot their mouths off on The Blaze, you know that a decision has been made by the folks in Fairfax to abandon even a shred of reality-based discussion in order to hold onto their ever-dwindling base.  And like it or not, the number of Americans who own guns keeps dropping, which means that in order to sell more guns, a way has to be found to convince current gun owners to buy more, and more, and more.  And the game plan that has always worked in this regard is to sell the idea that Armageddon in the form of gun confiscation is right around the corner or lurking down the block.

The most successful use of this strategy occurred over the last seven years due to the fact that our President made no bones about the fact that he was, generally speaking, anti-gun.  So it was easy for the gun industry to remind its supporters that Obama was the tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a conclusion that spoke for itself.  Of course the problem now is that he can’t run again; but until January 20, 2017 we can remind the gun folks that he’s still capable of doing terrible things.

loeschnranews               And who better to push the most conspiratorial argument from this point of view than Dana Loesch, who got going as a right-wing noisemaker promoting her own, nutty view of the world on The Blaze, but has now been hired by the NRA.  And her inaugural video, which floated onto YouTube yesterday, is a combination of conspiracy, fear-mongering and downright falsehoods that could put even the most ardent conspiracy theorists (I’m thinking of Jade Helm, for example) to shame.

The only statement in Dana’s entire spiel that even remotely aligns with the truth is when she says early on that Obama is considering using Executive Orders to expand government regulation over guns.  In fact, the Kenyan has made it clear that he is looking at options to close some loopholes which, under current gun laws, let individuals transfer large quantities of guns without undergoing NICS-background checks.  And what this would amount to is making a clear distinction between the gun owner who buys, sells or transfers guns from time to time because he’s a hobbyist and he just enjoys fooling around with guns, as opposed to the guy who brings 50 ‘personally-owned’ handguns into a gun show, sells these guns and then restocks his inventory to sell more guns for profit at the next show.  I’m not saying that a gun transferred without a NICS-background check is necessarily going to wind up in the ‘wrong hands.’  But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that someone who can’t pass a background check today still won’tencounter any great difficulty if he wants to get his hands on a gun.

So here’s how Dana puts it: “You see, the President could use his pen to require that even the simplest transfer of a firearm between family members, like if my husband handed a rifle to his oldest son, be treated in accordance with FFL requirements.” She then goes on to paint a frightening picture of the ATF coming into the home of every gun owner, kind of a throwback to Wayne-o’s calling the ATF ‘jack-booted thugs,’ in a fundraising letter sent to the membership in 1995.

This extraordinary mangling of gun law, you should know, comes out of the mouth of someone who claims to have written a book about guns and Constitutional law.  But the fact is that the entire FFL system, as defined by GCA68, has nothing to do with personal transfers at all.  Dana obviously doesn’t know the difference between personal transfers on the one hand and business transactions on the other.  But why should she care? Do you honestly believe that anyone who takes her rubbish seriously is interested in an evidence-based discussion about guns?

Does It Matter Whether Hillary Is Wrong By Claiming That 40% Of Guns Are Sold At Gun Shows And Online Sites? No.

Glenn Kessler writes a column called Fact Checker for the Washington Post where he critiques statements made by politicians that don’t align with the facts.  Recently he reviewed a statement about gun violence made by Presidential candidate Clinton and judged her comment to have “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.”  The statement in question was made by Hillary last week when she said that “forty percent of guns are sold at gun shows, online sales.”  Kessler argues that the offending statement is based on “very stale” data collected in 1994 and not subsequently verified by anyone else.  But the 1994 figure refers to guns that individuals received without first undergoing a background check, which was the point of Hillary’s speech; i.e., the need to expand background checks to all transfers of guns

hillary                Hillary’s comment and my fifty-year experience in the gun business got me to thinking: is her statement about gun show and internet sales so far off the mark? Let’s try to build a little data.  There are probably around 500 gun shows held in the U.S. every year.  Some of these are mega-shows, like the Tulsa show, but most are local or regional affairs, usually hosting several hundred exhibitors with a few thousand gun nuts wandering around.  I have probably been to 200 shows and have had a dealer’s table at 20-30 such events.  Reflecting on that experience I would say that an average show might contain 10,000 guns available to be bought and sold, maybe half are on tables rented by people who do not have an FFL  Are there 2.5 million non-FFL guns on display at gun shows each year?  I’ll bet I’m not far off.

What about the internet?  I have sold guns on big auction sites like Guns America and Gun Broker, and I have also bought guns from listings on Armslist.  I belong to two private Facebook groups where members buy, sell and trade guns, there are also hundreds of gun blogs which allow registered members to buy and sell guns.  Every one of these sites contains very clear admonitions to the effect that everyone must conform to all applicable federal, state and local laws.  The only problem is that in most localities there are no state or local laws. And if two people who live in the same state want to transfer a gun, there’s no federal law requiring any paperwork at all.

Some of the guns sold on internet websites are posted by retail dealers who also sell guns on their own websites and at local shows.  A study of Armslist postings by Third Way found there were 15,768 listings by private sellers in 10 states, which might indicate that 75,000 privately-owned guns are listed for sale at any one time, which is roughly 75% of all the guns for sale on the Armslist site.  Gun Broker, the largest online gun auction site, claims to contain 500,000 listings at any given time, but probably half these listings are for ammo, optics and various non-gun crap.

Between the auction sites, the buyer-to-seller sites and the gun blogs, I’m probably not off by much in estimating that one million guns are available for sale on the internet, of which maybe 750,000 guns could be transferred without conducting a background check.  And despite the rush towards a totally digital marketplace, most communities still have print newspapers and most of these papers carry classified ads for guns.  I just took a random look at a local shopper, Thrifty Nickel, in Idaho Falls, and found ads to sell a Taurus revolver and a Para 45.

What Hillary meant to say was that 40% of all gun transfers occur without a background check and she may not be far off the mark. Kessler is concocting a straw horse by criticizing her for what was nothing other than a verbal slip.  What she knows is that more background checks equals less guns going to the ‘wrong hands.’ And Glenn Kessler loses all credibility by not pointing that out.

 

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.