It’s Not Guns That Cause Gun Violence. It’s Handguns.

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By the time I went to bed last night, the ether was filled with reactions to the Alexandria shootings, most of them reflecting the alt-right view of things about guns and violence, namely, that if there had been more good guys at the ballfield with guns, the bad guy wouldn’t have shot anyone at all. But at least one sane voice emerged belonging to Chelsea Parsons and her colleagues at the Center for American Progress (CAP) who put up a podcast, ‘Too Many Guns in America,’ and discussed the event.

cap-logo1CAP has been a mainstay in the effort to strengthen gun regulations, and much of their approach can be found in their report, America Under Fire, which makes a persuasive argument that gun violence and laws regulating gun ownership and access go hand-in-hand; i.e., more laws equal less injuries caused by guns. You can download the report right here.

Much of yesterday’s podcast was devoted to talking about the efficacy of different gun laws which exist in a minority of states, which also happen to be the states where less gun violence occurs.  In particular, the podcast mentioned universal background checks, regulating assault rifles and hi-cap mags, and preventing domestic violence abusers from getting their hands on guns. Chelsea and her colleagues made a point of saying that all three strategies enlist wide, public support, although you wouldn’t know that from the GOP-alt-right chorus that was braying last night.

I want to make it clear that I am four-square in favor of government regulation of guns. I don’t believe anyone should be walking around armed who isn’t either required to carry as part of a job, or can’t demonstrate skilled, appropriate and continuous proficiency. And that means real, live shooting evaluated by the public authority that issues the license for carrying a gun.

The problem which comes up again and again whenever the gun violence prevention (GVP) community talks about gun violence, is not how they define ‘violence’ caused by guns, which should include suicide because self-violence happens to be part of the definition of violence used by the World Health Organization; rather, how GVP defines a ‘gun.’  Because when it comes to the ten ‘indicators’ of gun violence cited by CAP to create the America Under Fire report, nine of those ten indicators contribute to the annual gun-death toll not because of the existence of guns per se, but the existence of handguns, which poses all sorts of different issues than the existence of guns overall.

Take gun trafficking for example.  Ever notice that when the cops bust a bunch of dopes for bringing guns from down South into New York that most of the guns are small, concealable pistols, Glocks and stuff like that?  Sure, there’s a rifle here and there, but what sells in the street are the little bangers – the shooter in Alexandria, the shooter at the Pulse, the shooter at Aurora, the shooter at Sandy Hook – they used assault rifles that were all legally owned.

What frustrated me about the CAP podcast was that neither Chelsea, Igor or Michele said one word about the discussion’s title, namely, the existence of too many guns.  And with all due respect to the work that has been done linking gun violence to lax gun laws, it’s the number of weapons floating around which is the numero uno reason why so many Americans get shot with guns. But even noted scholars like our friend David Hemenway gets it wrong when he says that our rate of gun violence compared to other ‘advanced’ countries is so much higher because we have so many more guns, because if he compared per capita ownership of handguns rather than all guns, the disparities between our level of gun violence and the gun violence suffered by other societies would be two or three times worse.

Sorry to repeat what I have said so many times, but we will continue to suffer an extraordinary level of gun violence until we get rid of the guns. The little ones. Those guns.

 

Want To Stop Gun Trafficking? Just Enforce The Law.

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Like everyone else who is concerned about gun violence, I have been listening to the argument about expanding FBI-NICS background checks to secondary sales for more than twenty years. And much of the argument from the gun violence prevention (GVP) community falls back on the assumption that if all gun transactions could be traced, this would cut down, if not almost entirely eliminate ‘straw sales,’ i.e., the purchase of a gun by one person who knows he or she is really buying the gun for someone else.

laws             Now in fact we do not have a single study which compares gun violence rates in any state before and after universal background checks were put in place, and the oft-cited and excellent Hopkins study which shows a spike in Missouri gun homicides after mandatory background checks were abolished was based on permit-to-purchase (PTP) licensing, which is a much more thorough vetting process than running a background check through the FBI.

But when GVP advocates talk about straw sales, they are usually referring to organized efforts that connect straw purchases to gun trafficking, which involves someone buying a bunch of guns in a shop in one state, then stuffing them into the trunk of a car and delivering them to a street-seller somewhere else.  Back in February, the cops arrested 24 people who were buying guns in Virginia, then taking them up for resale in New York. One of the entrepreneurs told another confederate that he could take advantage of ‘weak’ laws in Virginia, walk into a gun store and buy 50 guns every day.

There’s only one little problem with this narrative, and the problem is something known as ATF Form 3310.  I’m willing to bet you that most of the people who read this column will have no idea what I am referring to because I have never seen it mentioned in any discussion about straw sales within the GVP.  But this form happens to be what every licensed dealer must fill out and immediately submit to the ATF if someone walks into their shop and purchases more than one handgun in any period of less than six days. A copy of the form also has to be sent to the police chief in the town where the gun shop is located, which means that within 24 hours after someone walks into a shop anywhere in the United States and walks out with more than one handgun, both the local police and the feds know the name and address of the purchaser, along with a description and serial number of each gun, and all the other relevant background information of the purchaser (DOB, race, ID, etc.) which is entered on the FBI-NICS background-check form known as the 4473.

So the idea that guns which are then ‘trafficked’ here and there are floating out the door of various gun shops without any controls over who buys them is simply not true. And the kid who bragged to his friend that he could easily buy 50 guns every day in Virginia may have thought he was describing a state with loose gun laws; in fact, what he was really describing was a state in which neither the local cops or the ATF are doing their job.

The ATF loves to give out all kinds of data on how many guns they trace, how many gun shops they inspect, blah, blah, blah and blah. But since the beginning of this year there have been slightly more than 100,000 background checks for the purchase of multiple guns, and I guarantee you that many of those transactions involved multiple handguns whose over-the-counter transfers aren’t tracked by the ATF at all.

I’m not saying that we should step back from the demand to institute background checks on all movement of guns. But there already exists a mechanism to make it more difficult for guns to get into the wrong hands and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be enforcing existing laws particularly when implementing stronger gun regulations probably won’t get done.

What’s The Connection Between ‘Weak’ Gun Laws And Gun Violence? I’m Not Sure.

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Now that the Trump Administration has made it clear that creating new gun regulations is hardly a national priority, I’d like to recommend to my friends in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community that perhaps they would step back and rethink the issue of the alleged connection between federal gun laws and gun violence; i.e., the belief that fewer federal gun laws leads to more criminal and accidental misuse of guns.

traffic             I’m not saying that we should do away with laws which regulate the purchase, ownership and use of guns.  I’m saying that GVP needs to be a little more sensitive to the assumption that more federal guns laws equals less gun violence because at the federal level we aren’t about to see any more laws. And what the GVP community needs to do most of all is stop assuming that just because a bunch of guns from one state end up getting sold to bad guys in another state, that this means the way to fix the problem is to pass new federal laws.

Here’s a fer-instance:  The Brooklyn DA announces that he is charging 24 putzes, most of whom are Blood members, with trafficking 217 guns into Kings County, including 41 assault weapons, and selling them on the street.  The weapons, according to the DA, were ‘purchased’ in Virginia and his indictment ‘highlighted the need for federal gun control to help stem the flow of thousands of illegal guns from the South.’  And what was the evidence produced to show that these jerkoff gun sellers were exploiting (as one media report called it) the ‘weak’ gun laws in Virginia?  It was a wiretap comment made by one of the jerkoffs named Antwan Walker (a.k.a. Twan) that he could go into any gun store in Virginia and buy as many guns as he could put into a car and take up to New York.

Now let’s assume for the sake of argument that my man Twan was actually telling the truth, even though the chances that he has ever told the truth about anything is probably about as great as the chances that we will ever hear a truthful statement from #45. But the point is that if Twan could go into a licensed gun dealer and buy even one gun, he had to be able to pass a NICS background check, which means he had to have a clean record or else he would not have been able to walk out of the store with the gun.

Guess what?  The gun law which allowed our the gun-trafficking expert Twan to go into a shop and buy 50 guns and take them up to New York was the exact, same federal law which would have regulated the sale of those guns to Twan in whatever state he happened to live. So the idea that all those Southern guns are coming up to New York because Southern states have ‘weak’ gun laws isn’t necessarily true.

Now someone might say but Mike, isn’t it easier to buy guns in Virginia because that state doesn’t require background checks for secondary (i.e., non-dealer) sales? Which happens to be the case in 39 other states besides Virginia, but our young gun trafficker (a.k.a. Twan) didn’t say anything over the phone about getting guns through private sales.  Know why? Because Twan and everybody else who wants to move guns from gun-rich states like Virginia to gun-poor cities like Big Apple doesn’t have to pay for the merchandise at all. They just have to walk down any residential street, break into a private home and I guarantee you they’ll find plenty of guns to steal.

With reliable estimates of between 200,000 and 400,000 handguns stolen each year, why does the GVP community sit around bemoaning the fact that there are so many ‘straw’ sales? I’m totally in favor of extending background checks to secondary sales BTW; I just don’t think it has much to do with how those guns end up on Brooklyn streets, no matter what Twan was heard to say.

 

Once Again The ATF Celebrates Much Ado About Nothing.

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It’s been a quiet few days in the gun violence world.  According to our friends at the Gun Violence Archive, since Friday there have only been 200+ shootings resulting in 59 deaths and 144 injuries, what Ralph on The Honeymooners would call a “mere bag of shells.”  But I was rescued by the ATF which issued a press release touting the work of its National Tracing Center (NTC) in tracing guns picked up overseas in the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and several Central American countries.  To quote the ATF: “Firearm trace data provides valuable investigative leads and specific trend data for our international partners.” Maybe some Mexican police agency will ask the ATF to trace one of the AK-47’s that the ATF shipped to Mexico between 2006 and 2011, of which at least one thousand are still floating around.

atf           The truth is that the ATF does very little to fight illegal guns except pat itself on the back.  And one of its most common back-patting activities involves the tracing of so-called ‘crime’ guns.  The ATF has been promoting its prowess in gun tracing since the licensing of commercial firearms sales was placed under its jurisdiction by the Gun Control Act of 1968.  And over the years, this tracing activity has yielded, according to the ATF, “critically important information” about the origins of millions of ‘crime’ guns.  In 2014, the ATF was able to identify the origin of 174,000 guns – do the arithmetic as Bill Clinton would say, and that adds up to at least a couple of million guns over the last forty-seven years.

The ATF has used this miasma of data to promote to build a basic argument about the commerce in crime guns.  I am referring to the notion, repeated ad nauseum by every GVP activist group and GVP-leaning politician, that gun ‘trafficking,’ (i.e., the illegal movement of guns from one location to another) is a major factor in gun violence and needs to be curbed. So I looked at the ATF report which, based on the data generated by the NTC, details the origin of all the traced guns in Massachusetts, which is where I happen to live.  In 2014, the NTC was asked to run 1,538 traces of which they could only identify the origin of 979 guns. Of those 979 guns, it turns out that 676 were initially purchased in MA and the surrounding, contiguous states.  And all those guns that get trafficked up the I-95 ‘pipeline?’  They accounted for roughly 15% of guns traced in MA. Gee, what a surprise that most of the crime guns in my state came from places which are. at most, a half-hour’s car ride away.

Of course the ATF says they are hamstrung in their efforts to do even more in their unrelenting battle against gun trafficking because they can’t look at how guns move from hand to hand since they can only check a dealer’s gun log which records the very first sale. And this lie is then innocently repeated by GVP advocates who really do want to see an end to the traffic in illegal guns. And why is it a lie? Because the ATF just issued a ruling defining how dealers can keep their records of acquisitions and sales electronically, which means the ATF can easily find out not just the first time that a gun was sold, but every time it was sold in a gun shop. And guess what? In my shop upwards of 40% of my guns were used, and these used guns had previously been sold by me or by some other dealer down the road.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how to search an Excel spreadsheet by any unique identifier and thus gain a much clearer picture on the history of a gun picked up at the scene if a crime. The boys in Fairfax must get a good laugh when they consider the behavior of the agency that regulates guns.

Does Time To Crime Help Us Understand How Guns Get Into The ‘Wrong Hands?’ I Don’t Think So.

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Ever since the NICS system went fully operational in 1998, gun-control advocates have been pushing to expand background checks beyond the original countertop sale.  And while it’s arguable, to say the least, that 40% of all gun transfers take place outside of the NICS background check process, there’s no denying the fact that regulating the movement of firearms throughout the civilian marketplace means, by definition, that less guns would get into the ‘wrong hands.’  In the meantime, however, the lack of comprehensive background checks has also spawned a series of assumptions about how and why guns end up being used in crime, and these assumptions then lead to policy strategies whose effectiveness, as far as I can tell, would be questionable at best.

nics                The biggest assumption flowing from the patchwork NICS system is the notion that guns end up in the ‘wrong hands’ because of something called ‘straw sales;’ i.e., someone who can pass muster with NICS buys a gun for someone who can’t, or someone sells a firearm to someone else who is prohibited under law from owning a gun. Another corollary that runs along the same line is the notion that many crime guns come out of the inventories of a relatively few rogue dealers who consciously furnish these weapons to so-called ‘gun traffickers’ who then set up shop on a gang-infested street.  This leads to the third corollary, namely, that states with weak gun laws (read: the South) are the spores out of which all these straw sales and gun-trafficked weapons initially emerge, then to be carted off and resold in gun-tough states like New York and other parts of the Northeast.

Much of this evidence about how, why, when and where crime guns appear comes from those folks who are responsible for regulating gun commerce, a.k.a. the ATF.  The agency publishes an annual report on a state-by-state basis which shows how long it takes for a gun originally sold by a federally-licensed dealer to wind up in the street.  This process is known as Time To Crime (or TTC), and the average for all 50 states is somewhere around 11 years.  Consequently, when the ATF notices that a particular dealer has a TTC of two years or less, there’s a good chance that this shop is somehow involved in straw selling, gun trafficking, or both.  Let me break the news to you gently: If I had a nickel for every piece of research that has been published on the utility of TTC as a way to cut down on guns ending up in the wrong hands, I’d be sitting in Zelo’s in Monaco instead of the diner near my house which has a hot spot that I’m using while I write this piece.

I hate to break the news to the ATF and the gun-control advocates who rely on the ATF to help formulate their strategies for regulating guns, but the TTC data published by the ATF doesn’t explain anything about the movement of guns from legal to illegal hands.  The trace request received by the dealer is based on the date that the wholesaler shipped him the gun.  So the data which comprises a TTC dealer profile is based on the first time a particular gun was sold.  In most gun shops, upwards of 40% of the guns that are sold (and for which a NICS check is conducted) happen to be used guns.  I sold more than 12,000 guns in my shop and I can tell you that I often sold the same gun two or three times.  But if I received a trace request for that gun, my response would be based only on the earliest, initial sale.

If the average gun dealer sells 30-40 percent used guns, there’s a 30-40 percent chance that the ATF trace will not be a reliable indicator of when that particular gun started moving from legal to illegal hands. Want to base public policy and advocacy on those odds?  You go right ahead.

 

Should ATF Become Part Of The FBI? The Center For American Progress Says “Yes.’

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The Center for American Progress just released a lengthy, detailed and fully-documented study on the organization and functions of the ATF, concluding that the agency be merged and managed by the FBI.  The report argues that the lack of a defined mission, coupled with budget shortfalls, operational impediments and intensely negative public scrutiny have combined to create what the CAP calls an “identity crisis” that can only be resolved through a major change in where the agency is placed.  Moving ATF under the FBI would not only allow the nation’s premier law enforcement agency to take over primary enforcement of gun laws, but would also give ATF access to the management and personnel resources that it currently lacks.

I have no quarrel with the Center’s recognition of the organizational and operational shortcomings of the ATF, nor would I disagree with their idea that moving primary responsibility for enforcing gun laws to the FBI would elevate the importance of solving crimes involving guns and therefore help diminish gun crimes and gun violence as a whole.  My problem with the report however, is that it is based on some of the assumptions about the relationship between guns, crime and enforcement which have defined the role and activities of the ATF, notwithstanding the fact that these assumptions have yet to be proven true.

cap logo                Take, for example, the whole notion of gun trafficking, whose elimination is the cornerstone of the entire ATF regulatory and enforcement edifice.  Gun trafficking is discussed in the CAP report, which notes that a majority of crime guns picked up in states with tough gun laws, like New York, come from states with weak gun laws, particularly states in the South. But I have never seen any study about the interstate movement of crime guns which differentiates between guns that move into criminal commerce because of ‘straw sales’ in retail shops and guns that are simply stolen and then end up somewhere else.  The DOJ-BJS says that 200,000 guns are stolen each year; Brady claims the number might be twice as high.  Why does the ATF assume that all those crime guns got into the ‘wrong hands’ only because someone lied on a NICS Form 4473?

They make this assumption because one of the agency’s primary missions is to “accurately and efficiently conduct firearms tracing and related programs to provide investigative leads for federal, state, local and foreign law enforcement agencies.”  In 2014 the ATF conducted more than 360,000 traces and the CAP report states that “the tracing of crime guns recovered by local law enforcement has provided a significant benefit to law enforcement efforts to respond to gun crimes.” With all due respect to the ATF’s self-congratulatory description of its tracing activities, less than 20% of all traces involve guns linked to serious crimes. The ATF may believe that its current staffing level is far too low, but this could easily be addressed by relieving some of the National Tracing Center staff from tracking down the origin of guns used in such violent crimes as election laws, gambling, fraud, immigration, invasion of privacy and sex crimes, to name a few of the more than 60 categories for which ‘crime guns’ are traced.

The ATF’s real identity crisis stems from the fact that there isn’t a single federal or state statute that outlaws a crime known as ‘gun trafficking,’ so the ATF ends trying to enforce laws that don’t actually exist.  Antonin Scalia got it right in the Abramski decision when he noted the extremely thin line which exists between a bone-fide straw sale, as opposed to the guy who buys a gun, walks away from the gun shop and decides to resell it to someone else before he gets into his car. If the ATF is ever going to become an effective agency for dealing with gun crimes, whether it ends up under the FBI or anywhere else, then the statutory vacuum in which it now operates has to be eliminated or filled in.

 

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