Don’t Just Fix NICS, Fix The ATF.

Every time rational and realistic folks try to expand background checks to secondary transfers or sales, the Congressional NRA Caucus jumps up and says,’before we change anything in the NICS system, we need to fix what currently exists.’ Which for a long time was convenient dodge to prevent any expansion of background checks at all. But after it came out that the Sutherland Springs shooter was able to legally buy guns because the Air Force never notified NICS that the guy served stockade-time for beating up his wife, the fix-NICS bandwagon has started rolling along, pushed in part by Senator Tom Cornyn, who happens to be one of the NRA’s best friends.

ATF logoNow it appears that the sudden concern about fixing NICS on the part of the NRA congressional delegation has morphed itself into a bill that will also let every red-blooded American walk around from here to high heaven carrying a gun. I suspect this national concealed-carry will die a natural death when it reaches the Senate, ditto any change in NICS. But if and when some NICS fix actually takes place, I’m hoping that my friends in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community will put some pressure on Congress to fix not just who has to send data to the FBI call center, but how the ATF uses the NICS system as well. Because it really doesn’t matter how much data we stick into the NICS system if the regulatory agency which allegedly uses that data to deal with gun violence doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

For 50 years the ATF has been saying that their hands are ‘tied’ because they can only get information from the initial transfer of a gun. Which means that once a gun leaves the shop after the purchaser passes a NICS background check, the ATF can’t figure out what happened between the time the gun was first purchased and when it was picked up in a crime. And since the average time between the initial transfer and when a gun is picked up at a crime scene is more than 10 years (what the ATF calls Time To Crime or TTC) God knows who owned the gun or how it got from a gun shop to where it was used in the commission of a crime.

There’s only one little problem with this scenario – it’s not true.  When the ATF says it can only look at the information which tells them who first bought the gun, they are simply lying, which means they know something to be true and consciously choose to say something else. Why is the ATF lying? Because if you walk into the average gun shop, you’ll discover that 30% to 40% of the inventory consists of used guns. I know a retail dealer whose shops is 10 miles from my shop. He only sells consignment guns; his entire inventory doesn’t cost him one red cent. Which means that every gun he sells has been sold over the counter at least one other time, and it’s not unusual for a gun to come in and out of a gun shop multiple times.

Here’s the point: every time a used gun comes back to a gun shop and is sold to someone else, the dealer creates two records of the gun’s in-and-out movement in documentation which is owned by the ATF.  That’s right – I have to keep an up-to-date listing of each gun in my Acquisition and Disposition list, and when the gun is sold I also have to create a maintain the background check form known as the Form 4473. The ATF can come into my shop at any time without any notice at all and inspect every, single entry in the A&D book as well as every 4473 form.

Could the ATF ask me to look up the particulars on any gun whether I sold it once or multiple times? Of course they can but they don’t because, after all, why put everyone through the hassle of looking up a gun transaction when you’re not sure of when that transaction actually took place?  The ATF knows the date when a gun was initially shipped from a wholesaler to me. But they don’t necessarily know when the first buyer of that gun brought it back or took it to another shop and sold it or traded it for a different gun.

The ATF can pat itself on the back all it wants about the great job the National Tracing Center performs in helping law enforcement agencies deal with crime. But the truth is they do a half-ass job at best and fixing NICS without fixing ATF is nothing other than closing the barn door after the animals have gotten out.

 

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Want To Make A Million In The Gun Business? Start With Two Million.

If you think I’m kidding about losing your rear end in the gun business, I can tell you that if I had been holding one million shares of S&W stock three weeks ago I would have been worth roughly $30 million bucks and the same pile of shares today would fetch about $8 million less.  Meanwhile, the financial media is abuzz with the idea that the great run-up of gun sales thanks to you-know-who in the White House has finally come to an end. On the other hand, according to FBI-NICS, the number of background checks is at an all-time high. So what’s really going on?

First of all, we need to remember that most of the guns manufactured in the United States come from companies that are still in private hands.  The only publicly-owned companies that provide detailed numbers are Smith & Wesson and Ruger, which together account for roughly 20% of all guns made each year in the US, but because of imports to the US market, their overall share of the gun business is somewhat less.

As for FBI-NICS background checks, these numbers are also not quite what they seem.  The gun industry would like you to believe that NICS checks are continuing to zoom upward, but the report issued by the FBI each month counts every time the telephone rings at the NICS call center in West Virginia, whether it’s for a gun transfer or not.  And in fact, roughly half the background checks each month are for reasons that have nothing to do with gun transfers at all, namely, to check the validity of gun licenses, pawn redemptions, etc.

The reason why several stock analysts downgraded S&W stock was because handgun transfers dropped 13% from February to March, with the decline in long gun transfers also noticeable but not quite as severe. And while the sell-through numbers posted in Ruger’s latest 10K report indicates that products aren’t piling up on anyone’s shelves, the bottom line is that gun sales simply haven’t been all that strong since the post-Sandy Hook gun-control furor died down.

Before I get into the NICS numbers in more detail, first, NICS doesn’t distinguish between new and used guns, which means, to begin with, that using NICS to judge the health of gun-making companies isn’t such a bright idea. Second, since NICS covers transfers, not the number of guns transferred, the monthly numbers for handguns and long guns are certainly undercounted, but nobody knows by how much.  On the other hand, NICS data is a good measure of gun transfer trends, which obviously reflects the health of the industry as a whole.

With that in mind, let’s look at monthly NICS transfers for March and start back in 2005.  Total gun transfers that March were 580,000, which climbed to 675,000 in March, 2008.  The number went to 900,000 in Obama’s first March (2009) and remained right around that figure each March through 2012.  Then we had Sandy Hook and a noisy argument about expanding background checks – the 2013 number was 1.4 million, but in 2014 it slipped down 17% to 1.1 million and remained at that same level the following year.

Here’s the bottom line.  Despite all the hue and cry from Gun Nation about how ‘everyone’ is getting into guns, the NICS numbers have been basically unchanged since the Democrats stopped trying to regulate guns.  And nobody is going to tell me that the 40% increase in NICS directly after Sandy Hook reflected a sudden upswell of interest by new buyers who wanted to purchase guns. So the gun market will continue to drift downward until the Clintons reclaim their love nest at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Unless the unthinkable happens in November and we elect someone who just ‘loves’ the 2nd Amendment.  In which case you can start off with however much money you want and you’ll still wind up with bupkis when all is said and done.

Does Knowledge About Guns Laws Promote More Gun Laws? Maybe Yes, Maybe No.

A new study conducted by researchers at Yale University and covered in The Trace appears to confirm a truism in how people develop and hold opinions, namely, the more you want to believe in something, the more you can make yourself believe in something.  In this case, the issue is guns, and what two Yale researchers discovered in a survey of 1,384 people, is that people who support stronger gun-control laws also know that background checks are not conducted on all gun transfers, whereas people who are less inclined to support less gun-control laws believe that universal background checks are already in place. In other words, if you believe there is a gun “problem” and you further believe that new laws could help solve the problem, you will be in favor of more laws.  And to quote an old Spanish saying: If not, not.

peacenow              I have two issues with this survey, but I want it understood that I am not trying to throw out the baby with the bathwater; I’m just trying to make the bathwater a bit more warm.  To begin, I am always somewhat suspect of public surveys about guns if the survey purports to reflect the views of a ‘representative’ group of Americans without distinguishing whether this particular group includes gun owners or not. Because on any issue related to guns, these folks are going to have plenty to say, particularly if they happen to be among the minority if gun owners who really do ‘cling’ to their guns because it’s a lifestyle and a hobby that is very important to them.  They are not necessarily the majority of gun owners and it certainly isn’t a majority of Americans, but it may be a majority in certain gun-rich states and it’s for sure just about everyone who turns out when a new gun law comes up for debate.

In this respect the Yale researchers ask the following question: “Could it be that public misperceptions of existing gun control laws also contribute to the absence of public mobilization for new legislation?”  Let me break it gently to our GVP colleagues from Yale – the folks who are against new gun laws never have any trouble mobilizing for a public debate, whether they know anything about the law in question or not.  It’s the 89% of respondents to this survey who both know there are no universal background checks and want an expansion of gun-control laws who usually don’t show up.

The authors focused this survey on questions about background checks because, according to them, “universal background checks for gun purchases could substantially reduce the number of gun-related deaths in the USA.”  They cite two well-known studies to bolster this statement, but that’s not what either study actually says.  The research by Eric Fleelger and his group correlates gun fatalities with the presence or absence of gun laws in every state, but background checks are just one of 17 different legal procedures that are used to monitor public traffic of guns.  As for the study by Daniel Webster, et. al., on the effect of the repeal of Missouri’s handgun-purchase law, a permit-to-purchase procedure conducted at the state level is, by definition, a much more rigorous method for weeding out unqualified handgun purchasers than a 60-second conversation between a gun shop owner and an FBI staffer at NICS.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying or implying that the problem of gun violence can be effectively addressed without additional laws.  I am also not saying that researching the effect of gun-control laws with an eye towards making those laws more effective shouldn’t be done.  But what I am saying is that if we believe in public policy as a mechanism for change, then the question we really have to ask is not whether folks understand the ins and outs of specific policies, but whether they are willing to come out and show themselves when a public policy is being addressed.  Perhaps that’s the question which should have been asked.

 

Why Did Bill O’Reilly Call For Comprehensive Background Checks?

Did I really hear what I thought I heard Bill O’Reilly say after Obama announced his agenda for additional controls on guns? So I waited until Fox posted O’Reilly’s remarks from his Wednesday night show and here is exactly what he said: “The NRA and the gun owners should be reasonable. The FBI should background check anyone buying a firearm in America. That just makes sense. If you are paranoid and believe the government is stockpiling information so they can come to your house and take your guns — that’s your problem, your problem.”

oreilly               Is this the Bill O’Reilly whose nightly talk show always leads the ratings for Fox News?  Is this the same Bill O’Reilly who has either excused or justified virtually every racist attack on Obama over the last seven years? Is this the selfsame Bill O’Reilly who, following the shooting at Umpqua CC, told Obama that he could “never change” the 2nd Amendment?  Yup, it’s the same, old Billy-boy, and while I wish I had been the first one to pick up on this remarkable statement, I have to admit that you can also see the clip on Salon and Media Matters, along with a quickie from Trump (on the Salon website) commenting on Obama’s speech by saying, “Don’t worry folks, they’re not going to take away your guns.”

So all of a sudden, after months of the most outrageous and pandering lies, the Republicans turn an about-face and decide it’s time to be reasonable as regards guns.  And don’t make the mistake of thinking for one second that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News in general can be counted on to get out in front and take a positon on any political issue that runs against the Republican grain.  If all of a sudden someone as influential as Bill O’Reilly dismisses the idea that background checks will lead to gun confiscation, if this dismissal is then repeated explicitly by Donald Trump, then what has happened is that the single, most important idea used by the NRA to block any kind of sensible gun regulation – regulation leads to confiscation – has just disappeared.

The NRA and other pro-gun organizations have been promoting this slippery-slope crap since the 1990s, if not before.  The NRA usually trots this bromide out in their fundraising pitch, but there are some quasi-serious scholars out there like the NRA counsel Stephen Halbrook whose book, Gun Control in the Third Reich, also argues that gun registration in Germany then led to gun confiscation with the utmost, tragic results. I knew that Ben Carson didn’t have the wherewithal to be a serious Presidential candidate when he stated and then defended the idea that millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust because they didn’t own guns.  But he didn’t say anything different than what has been floating around gun circles for years.

So what’s going on?  How come people who until a week ago were promoting the sine qua non of gun stupidity by warning us about how the gun-grabbers are hard at work trying to take away our guns, are now lining up on the side of reasonableness, on the side of common sense?  Should the GVP community take O’Reilly seriously?  Should Mike Bloomberg offer to appear with Trump if The Donald is willing to repeat his promise that nobody’s going to lose their guns?

What’s going on is what I have been saying is going on in the period since Sandy Hook; namely, for the very first time since guns became a public issue, the terms of the debate are no longer being set by the NRA.  I’m not saying that the playing field is exactly level.  I’m saying that the GVP movement is finally forcing the other side to consider whether what it says will continue to sell.  Because you don’t change a thirty-year public stance because all of a sudden you see the light.  You change it because otherwise your own bulb might just burn out.

 

 

 

Want Some Facts About Gun Violence? You Won’t Get Them From David Kopel Or The Cato Institute.

Greg Ridgeway is a statistician turned criminologist who was Associate Director of the National Institute of Justice from 2013 to 2014.  During his tenure he authored what has become something of a cult piece for the pro-gun community, namely, a memo called Summary of Select Firearm Violence Prevention Strategies, which keeps turning up in various pro-gun commentaries as a basic ‘proof’ that gun-control programs don’t work.  The latest broadside to cite Ridgeway’s document in approving fashion is a report by David Kopel published by the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank that has been promoting the pro-gun agenda for years.

gv              I was going to respond to Kopel’s propaganda until I realized that Ridgeway’s little missive deserves some attention all its own. Because, when all is said and done, we know that Kopel is going to dismiss any and all GVP programs because as a researcher for Cato, that’s what he is paid to do. On the other hand, Ridgeway’s memo was written while he was employed by the National Institute of Justice, which happens to be the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, which happens to be responsible for enforcing all those gun regulations that people like Kopel tell us shouldn’t exist, never mind enforced.  So if the DOJ is sending out a memo on gun control strategies that is acceptable to pro-gun schmucks like Kopel, this is something that needs to be investigated and better understood.

In his section on why extending background checks is a bad idea, Kopel says that, according to Ridgeway, “a system requiring background checks for gun sales by non-FFLs is utterly unenforceable without a system of universal gun registration.” To begin, there is no such statement anywhere in Ridgeway’s memo.  Kopel’s entire argument about the efficacy of background checks is predicated on an alleged statement by Ridgeway that does not exist.  What Ridgeway does say is that recovering guns from individuals who purchased them legally but then commit behaviors that disqualify them from gun ownership (e.g., involuntary commitment, domestic abuse), is more difficult without knowing whether such individuals own guns.  That doesn’t support Kopel’s anti-registration argument at all.

I opened up Ridgeway’s memo expecting to find a document that would support most, if not all the pro-gun arguments made by gun fantasists like Kopel.  I refer to Kopel as a ‘fanstasist’ because his basic argument for gun ownership is based on a fantasy that has nothing to do with reality at all.  And the fantasy is that guns are a positive social factor in our lives because they protect us from crime.  In fact, the conclusion of Kopel’s entire essay says that “the most effective paths to preventing mass shootings are improving access to mental care and removing impediments to lawful self-defense and defense of others.” Here we go again – Donald Trump telling us that shooters are crazy and we should all follow his example and walk around with a gun.

But you won’t find any of that crap in Ridgeway’s memo; indeed, it’s a very balanced piece of work.  For example, the memo claims that gun buybacks don’t work.  But the buybacks discussed in the memo only involved national, country-wide efforts, whereas buybacks conducted in targeted venues have, as might be expected, varying degrees of success. Another sacred cow of the pro-gun community, hi-capacity magazines, is also treated honestly and in balanced fashion by Ridgeway who says that a hi-cap ban could only be effective when or if extant hi-caps disappeared, but he also notes that “there is reason to believe that reducing the availability of large capacity magazines could have an effect on the total number of homicides.”

When the DOJ or any government agency issues a statement about guns, the GVP community needs to evaluate it not on the basis of whether it says what we want it to say, but whether it is based on reason and facts.  We certainly won’t get either from Cato or David Kopel.

Hey Mr. President, If You Want To Curb The Underground Gun Market, Here’s A Couple Of Ideas.

A few days ago, Everytown published a detailed and serious research report with recommendations to President Obama who wants to issue an Executive Order curtailing private gun sales by defining gun dealers in more realistic ways.  Until now, the definition of a gun dealer makes it quite easy for anyone to transfer lots of guns without holding a dealer’s license, hence, such transfers fall outside the regulatory system controlled by the ATF. By defining more realistically what really constitutes being in the business of selling guns, the intention is to close a major loophole which now exists both in face-to-face and internet sales.

There would be no need for such executive action if every gun transfer required a NICS background check and a Form 4473. But the possibility that such a law would be passed is a faint hope at best, hence Obama’s willingness to consider curbing some unlicensed sales by expanding the definition of gun dealer, hence the report by Everytown which follows a similar set of recommendations put forth by the Center for American Progress last month.

This report is a solid and convincing piece of work.  But the problem with recommending a more stringent definition of ‘gun dealer’ is that it will only make a difference if the regulatory environment in which all dealers have to operate is managed with aggressiveness and dedication by a regulatory agency – the ATF – which has shown a notable lack of diligent performance in the past.

But if the President is really serious about curbing the underground gun market as a way of keeping guns out of the wrong hands, I would like to make two very simple proposals that I believe would profoundly change the regulatory landscape without requiring the ATF to get off their collective rear ends and do anything at all.

First and most important, the ATF itself could simply issue a directive requiring all federally-licensed dealers to record acquisitions and dispositions of their firearm inventory in an online spreadsheet program such as Excel.  The ATF actually suggests that dealers follow this practice, because it makes it easier for them to conduct an inspection when they visit a store.  But it’s not required, although there’s nothing in the current regs that would prevent such an order from being carried out.  What this would allow the ATF to do is drop the nonsense they have been peddling for years about how they are ‘handcuffed’ from learning more about how guns move from legal to illegal hands because they can only trace up to the first sale.

everytown logo             That’s simply not true and it’s not true because the ATF has total authority to examine every notation in the Acquisition & Disposition book, whether it represents the first sale or the subsequent sale of a gun which a purchaser traded in or otherwise returned to the shop.  The average dealer sells 30-40% used guns; which means by definition there are multiple entries for that gun in his A&D book or the A&D of another dealer close by.  And since when was the ATF required only to send a trace request to the dealer who first sold the gun?  There is no such requirement, but in the absence of same, what the hell, make it up.

The President could also require that every law enforcement agency report lost or stolen guns to the ATF.  He issued such an Order after Sandy Hook, but it only applied to federal agencies when, in fact, just about every stolen or missing gun is reported by its owner to the local police.  The national missing/stolen list which the ATF claims is a valuable tool in the fight against crime is a joke, but it could make a difference if it was brought up to speed and combined with trace data which really showed who was the last person to legally buy a certain gun.

I don’t have any special or non-special entrée to the Oval Office.  Here’s hoping that someone better connected than me might pass these recommendations along.

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.