Want To Invent Facts About Gun Violence? Conduct A Survey.

Now that the boys from Fairfax have decided to give Ollie North an opportunity to keep the discussion about gun violence at a level of religious righteousness that precludes the slightest degree of reality entering into the debate from their side, our friends at The Washington Post have decided to create their own version of reality by publishing the results of a national survey which finds that a majority of Americans believe that more people own guns than actually do own guns.

surveys             The Post claims that a ‘representative sample’ of more than 2,000 adults were asked the following question: “Out of every 100 people in the U.S., about how many do you think own a gun?” And the average answer was: 43 percent.  The Post claims that this is a much higher number than either ‘gun-rights’ or ‘gun-control’ groups are willing to accept, although their source for the numeric favored by Gun-nut Nation happens to be Gallup which puts the gun-owning percentage right at 42%.

Trying to figure out how many Americans own guns is a game which has been played since the 1970’s, particularly following the first, major federal gun law passed in 1968. It was this law, GCA68, which ignited the public discussion about guns and spawned a cottage industry of survey-takers who have been trying ever since to figure out how many Americans own guns. Sometimes the surveys asks whether a gun is found within a particular residence, other times whether a particular individual within the residence owns a gun, sometimes the survey requests information on both.

When these surveys first started being published, there was a big hue and cry from the Gun-nut side that the numbers understated ownership because people were afraid to state in public that they owned guns. The funny thing is that when such cautions were raised about the truthfulness of gun-ownership answers, most surveys set the percentage of gun-owning families at 50% or more. Of late, nobody seems terribly concerned about disclosing the presence of guns, even though the gun-owning number has dropped to 40% or less.

Although the gun-rights and the gun-control groups still differ about how many guns and how many gun owners are floating around, what I find interesting is that both sides come down in lockstep on one basic point, namely, that what we believe to be the real number is presumed to represent only guns that are legally owned.  After all, if a legal gun owner might be reluctant to publicly disclose his access to guns, someone who has an illegal gun lying around for sure isn’t about to spill the goods.

This might sound like a rather radical thing to say, but I have never felt comfortable with the distinction between ‘legal’ as opposed to ‘illegal’ guns. The implication is that people who own guns legally are somehow more responsible, whereas illegal gun owners are irresponsible or worse. After all, the definition of ‘responsible’ usually means that someone doesn’t break the law, so, by definition, anyone with an ‘illegal’ gun is already a law-breaker before he does anything good, bad or otherwise with the gun. Which allows the NRA to always refer to its members as ‘law-abiding’ gun owners, but also lets the GVP opposition chase after ‘responsible’ gun owners who will support ‘reasonable’ laws.

The NRA which prides itself on only attracting law-abiding citizens to its ranks is the same NRA that tells its members that the government has no right to determine whether they are, in fact, a law-abiding citizen when they attempt to buy a gun. By the same token, the gun violence prevention (GVP) movement is reluctant to go headlong against the ‘law-abiding’ argument because most of the people who allegedly own ‘illegal’ guns happen to be members of minority communities and the last thing the GVP wants is remind its constituency that a majority of the individuals who commit gun violence also happen to be from one of the minority groups.

In other words, it really doesn’t matter what the Washington Post survey found because the narratives used by both sides in the debate about gun violence have little to do with the truth.

 

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Does Gun Violence Go Down When We ‘Get Tough’ On Illegal Guns?

Our good friends at The Trace have responded to the confirmation of Jeff Sessions as the People’s Lawyer by running a detailed analysis of how he prosecuted gun cases during 1993, the last year of his tenure as U.S. Attorney in Mobile. During his recent confirmation hearings Sessions came down hard on prosecuting gun crimes, citing a Federal sentencing statute which calls for a mandatory, five-year prison term for someone who commits a violent crime with a gun.  And the gun sentence doesn’t run concurrent with the sentence for the violent crime itself – it’s tacked on after the other sentence has been served.

sessions              The study published in The Trace covered 70 gun cases that went through Sessions’ office in 1993, of which 19 were tied directly to a violent crime and thus might have become what prosecutors call a ‘tack-on’ charge, which is often used as a threat to get a defendant to cop a guilty plea.  His office also charged drug dealers with being ‘repeat offenders’ if they carried a gun during multiple drug sales on the same day, and these charges often resulted in sentences of between 25 years to life.

Now here’s where things get a little sticky, both in terms of what a detailed analysis of these gun cases shows, as well as how Dan Friedman, who wrote the piece for The Trace, chose to explain what went down.  Of the 70 gun cases prosecuted by Sessions in 1993, 25 were for a felon who had possession of a gun, which is a violation of the gun-control law of 1968.  Most of these individuals were not charged with any other crime, some got reduced sentences by copping a plea, others served three years or more.

Friedman’s article suggests that the surge in the number of felons-in-possession cases wasn’t tied directly to an increase in violent crime, but was simply a way for Sessions and other U.S. Attorneys to ‘pad’ their caseloads with more successful prosecutions which meant more people serving more time in jail.  He notes that when Geoffrey Holder became Attorney General under Obama, he told federal prosecutors to relax the guidance on chasing and convicting defendants of gun charges, no doubt a reflection of concerns about the rising incarceration rates, in particular the incarceration of blacks. The result, according to Freidman, is that federal firearms-violations cases dropped from 11,067 in 2004 to 8,528 in 2015.

Friedman’s article concludes with a statement from Professor Daniel Richman who teaches law at Columbia University and previously served as a federal prosecutor for the Federal District of New York. “Gun prosecutions can cover a range of people,” says Richman, “you are getting someone with a gun and that’s something, but the likely effect on violence is far from clear.” Which was perhaps one of the reasons that motivated Holder to relax the aggressive prosecution of gun cases during his tenure in D.C.

So I decided to test Richman’s theory about what happens when we ‘get tough’ on gun crime, which is clearly uppermost in the mind of the new Attorney General, as well as his boss who ranted endlessly about protecting America from the criminal hordes during the 2016 campaign.  Know how many homicides were committed in Mobile in 1992, the year before Sessions really cracked down on guys who were walking around with illegal guns? There were 35 homicides in Mobile, of which at least half were committed with guns. Know how many homicides occurred in Mobile in 1993, when Sessions was locking up everyone who was found with an illegal gun?  The homicide number for that year was 42 and every other violent crime category was either significantly down from the previous year or remained the same.

In other words, while Sessions was busily locking up all the criminals with guns, more people in Mobile ended up getting killed. So if there’s any connection between getting ‘tough’ on illegal guns and violent crime, it might be exactly the reverse of what Sessions, Trump and the NRA have said.  Hmmmmmmm….

Once Again The ATF Celebrates Much Ado About Nothing.

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.

Want To Play Fast And Loose With Facts? Follow What The NRA Says About Guns.

If it weren’t for the fact that the NRA continues to make public statements that are at such variance with the truth, I would probably cease responding to their continued efforts to persuade America that more guns are good, less guns are bad.  Because all their talk and all their noise hasn’t convinced an increasing share of Americans to own guns, even if public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe that gun ownership makes us safe. The NRA’s latest flight from reality is their response to Obama’s speech delivered in Chicago to the annual meeting of the IACP.  As usual, the President lamented the failure of Congress to pass new gun-control laws, and since the NRA would prefer there were no laws regulating the sale or ownership of guns, if Obama says yes, they have to say no.

The NRA’s nay-saying began by actually agreeing with the President when he said that crime rates had fallen to historic lows.  I suspect, incidentally, that when the crime numbers are published for 2015 (Obama was referring to crime stats for 2013), we will see the downward trend reversed.  According to my friends at the Gun Violence Archive, the number of gun homicides this year has already surpassed all of 2014, and we have a couple of months still to go, plus the GVA has no choice but to understate the actual number given that it compiles real-time data from unofficial (i.e., media) reports.

Best gun salesman ever!

Of course whatever the true gun violence number turns out to be, the NRA will remind us that the number would be much higher because the current downward trend is due to the ownership of all those guns.  One can’t argue the fact that there has been a 50% reduction in violent crime over the last twenty years, a period that has also witnessed somewhere around 150 million new guns getting into civilian hands.  But the NRA has never been one to caution its supporters that coincidence and causality are two very different words, and the Brennan Center’s very careful study of the causes for the decline in crime found “no evidence” that increased gun ownership or the issuance of concealed-carry licenses made any difference at all.

But I want to say something here that I have been saying to my GVP friends again and again; the effort to promote gun regulations both at the federal level and within individual states is grounded in the notion that public policies should flow from a commitment to evidence-based information, or what we call ‘facts.’  Not that both sides necessarily agree on the facts, but at least there should be some acknowledgement on both sides that facts are an indispensable component in any public-policy debate.

The problem is that, generally speaking, the NRA could care less about facts.  After all, they are in the business of promoting gun ownership and as long as what they say about guns doesn’t create legal threats to their welfare, it really doesn’t matter whether what they say bears any relation to the truth.  I’ll give you a couple of examples from this NRA-ILA screed.

The NRA states that the President insulted the intelligence of the American people by ‘ridiculously’ asserting that “it is easier for young people in some communities to find a gun than to find fresh vegetables at the supermarket.”  What’s so insulting about that?  Inner-city neighborhoods are notoriously devoid of fresh, nutritious foods; they are also notorious for the ease with which one can pick up an illegal gun.  In contrast, according to the NRA, a law-abiding individual has to undergo a background check and fill out a “six-page federal form.”  Actually, the buyer fills out one page, four of the remaining five pages are instructions and boilerplate always attached to all federal forms.

I’m not saying that the GVP community should detach itself from a commitment to facts.  But they should not operate under any illusion that fact-based arguments will yield a fact-based response from the other side. Don’t worry – it won’t.