Who Owns All The Guns? We Don’t Really Know.

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One of the long-standing issues in the gun debate has been to calculate the number of guns actually floating around the United States.  This is an important number, if only because public health researchers have published very credible research which indicates that our elevated gun-violence numbers are directly related to a civilian gun arsenal which may now number more than 300 million guns.

traffic            We have a pretty good idea about the number of guns added to the civilian stash over the last 25 years thanks to the manufacturing reports published by the ATF.  And while this report is based on the number of guns made, not the number which the gun makers actually sell, it’s not necessarily an accurate number, but for purposes of this column it will do.  Since 1998 we also know more or less exactly how many new guns move into private hands thanks to the monthly background check numbers published by the FBI.

The real problem in coming up with a valid number for the total stock of guns is twofold: first, we have no idea how many guns that were manufactured between 1900 and 1990 were actually sold, and we also don’t know how many guns that were sold between 1900 and today are still floating around. Guns last a long time, that’s for sure. But they also break, they get lost, they get thrown away after Grandpa dies and Grandma moves into the nursing home; counting the civilian ‘gun stock’ is an inexact science at best.

Our friends at Harvard and Northeastern have recently come up with a pretty solid number based on the survey they conducted which at some point will be published by Russell Sage. Their current number is 265 million, which they derived by estimating overall totals from answers to their survey, then deducting a percentage for loss, wear and tear. Until some research group comes up with a new approach to figuring out the size of America’s gun arsenal, I’m content to stick with what the Harvard-Northeastern group would like to believe.

On the other hand, believe or not, if we are trying to understand the cause and effect relationship between the number of guns that are privately owned and the 115,000+ deaths and injuries caused by guns every year, I am yet to be persuaded that figuring out the number of guns in civilian hands is the right way to go. Because although 115,000 gun deaths and injuries is a shockingly-high number, it happens to represent a tiny fraction of the number of people who either own guns or put guns to the wrong use. And moreover, at least 80% of those deaths and injuries occur because someone shoots a handgun at themselves or someone else.

In addition to trying to figure out handgun ownership as opposed to ownership of all guns, there’s another problem which makes any attempt to develop public policies based on restricting or diminishing the number of privately-owned guns a risky business at best. At least two-thirds of the gun deaths and injuries that occur every year are criminal events, and even with our elevated gun-suicide rates, if gun crimes didn’t occur, our overall gun-violence rate would be no higher than the rest of the OECD.

How many of these 75,000 or more homicides and aggravated assaults are committed with ‘illegal’ guns? How many people possess a gun even though they cannot, under law, put their hands on a gun?  We have absolutely no idea. The NRA doesn’t miss an opportunity to consign all gun violence to ‘street thugs,’ but the truth is that we have no evidence-based research which necessarily proves the Boys from Fairfax to be wrong.

We have a pretty good idea about how many guns are legally owned – the information is found in all those FBI-NICS forms that everyone who buys a gun from a dealer has to fill out. But if we want to reduce gun violence, shouldn’t we try and learn something about the gun owners who don’t fill out those forms?

 

Everyone Supports Universal Background Checks. So What?

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As a member of the NRA (I’m actually an endowment member so they can’t throw me out no matter what I say) I get emails from the NRA-ILA alerting me to state and federal gun laws which either weaken or strengthen gun ‘rights’ and the NRA’s response to such laws on both sides. The NRA has never bumped into a law which might make it more difficult for red-blooded Americans to exercise those precious 2nd-Amendment ‘rights,’ but as a follower of don Corleone’s admonition to Michael about keeping friends close but enemies closer, I always read what the NRA-ILA has to say.

NICS   The last missive I received contained a summary of laws recently introduced in Congress which represent “longstanding proposals that would burden innocent Americans at every turn.”  Chief among these proposals is the old bugaboo about ‘universal’ background checks which the NRA characterizes as a “perennial favorite of the gun control crowd,” because it “seeks to interpose the government (and expensive fees) into every exchange of firearms, including between trusted neighbors, close friends, and even family members,”  This warning is then followed by the NRA’s coup de grace statement about all GVP-backed legislation, namely, that it will “chip away at the right to keep and bear arms until it becomes out of reach to the average American.” The same, old, slippery-slope argument which is used against ‘responsible’ gun regulations every, single time.

The gun violence prevention (GVP) community always cites the endless public surveys which allegedly show that a solid majority of Americans, even gun-owning Americans, even NRA, gun-owning Americans, are in favor of some extension of background checks beyond the initial, over-the-counter sale. I don’t believe these polls not just because the NRA is totally against such an idea, but because those survey results don’t square with anything I ever experienced in selling more than 12,000 rifles, shotguns and handguns in my own retail gun store.

I can guarantee you that every time I sold a gun in my shop, the purchaser filled out an ATF Form 4473 which I then used to contact the FBI-NICS examiners in West Virginia in order to get an approval for the sale.  When the ATF audited my shop in 2013, they couldn’t find one, single instances in which we failed to get FBI-NICS approval before completing a sale. But I can tell you that at least half the customers made overt and nasty comments about the ‘goddamn government,’ or the ‘goddamn Kennedys,’ or the ‘goddamn Clintons’ while they were filling out the 4473 form.  And I can also say without fear of contradiction that had the instant FBI-NICS check been voluntary, those same customers would have turned it down.

Nobody likes the government when it comes to be told what we must do.  We pay taxes because we have to pay them, we (usually) drive at the speed limit because otherwise we might end up adding points to our license, paying a fine and seeing our insurance rates go up. In fact, many of us wouldn’t even bother to buy automobile insurance except we don’t have a choice. So why would anyone believe that just because people say that FBI-NICS is a ‘good thing,’ that those same folks can’t wait for the imposition of universal background checks?

Last month more than 26,000 guns were purchased in New York. How many private gun transfers took place? Less than 700. In New York State every gun transfer now requires a NICS background check, and it is simply not possible that in a state as big as New York that less than 3% of all gun transfers go between private hands. And yet many of the same folks who can’t be bothered to walk into a gun shop to give a gun to someone else will say they support universal NICS checks.

Know why the NRA opposes NICS checks? Because they know how gun owners really think, which is still something of a mystery for the GVP.

Do We Really All Support Background Checks?

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If I had a nickel for every gun violence prevention (GVP) advocate and/or gun violence researchers who believes that the American public is not so polarized about controlling guns, I would be somewhere at my golf club and not sitting in my office writing, doing emails, answering the phone and doing all the things I do in order to keep my checkbook occasionally in balance. And this GVP belief in the ability to work with the ‘other side’ stems primarily from endless surveys which show that even gun owners and/or Republicans (usually the same thing) support comprehensive background checks.

polls2             The latest pronouncement in this respect comes from one of our leading gun researchers, Garen Wintemute, who is now overseeing a $5 million grant from the State of California to fund research that has been left undone since the CDC stopped funding gun violence research back in 1998. As ‘proof’ that we are not so divided over the issue of background checks, I quote Wintemute from a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times: “90% of the general population supports (background checks for all firearms purchases), 80% of gun owners support it and 70% of self-reported NRA members support it. Things are not as polarized as they seem.”

I’m assuming that Wintemute took these numbers from the Pew poll published back in June which found, among other things, that 19% of all gun owners were members of the NRA. If this were true, the $165 million they pulled in from dues in 2015 would be chump change compared to what they would really rack if the 19% ‘NRA members’ were paying annual dues. Try about $250 million, okay?

But since the Pew researchers made no effort to ask people why they said they were members of America’s oldest civil rights organization, for the moment let’s accept the number as true even if it’s not. Here’s a bigger truth. The NRA has come out officially and publicly against any expansion of background checks. Period. No compromise whatsoever. So what the Pew researchers should have asked, and perhaps one of Wintemute’s research colleagues will get around to asking at some point is this: ‘If you favor background checks, would you drop your NRA membership because the organization is opposed to background checks?’  Or perhaps instead of that question, the researchers would ask something along the lines like this: ‘Would you vote for someone whose stance on issues included expanding background checks?’

Remember a political candidate named Hillary Clinton? She used a very strong GVP argument to knock Bernie out of the box. The only problem is that the same argument didn’t work in the general election worth a damn. I’m not saying that Trump won the election only because of his stance on 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’ What I am saying is that asking the average person if they favor expanded background checks doesn’t really tell you very much about how that individual will really line up and be counted when a new gun law is being debated in the jurisdiction where that individual happens to live.

I’m also not saying that gun owners are ignorant of the importance of background checks for the transfer a gun from one set of hands to another set of hands. Nor am I saying they are lying when they tell a survey-taker that they support expanded background checks. But asking someone to respond to a specific question about guns doesn’t really tell you how the answer to that question lines up with other thoughts the same person holds about guns and how best to use public policies to diminish the violence caused by guns.

The same gun owners who told Pew they favored comprehensive background checks also said they wanted teachers to carry guns in schools and in case you don’t remember, arming teachers was the NRA’s response following the massacre at Sandy Hook.

If only the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ could be measured by responses to a single question in a poll.

All Of A Sudden Everyone’s In Favor Of A New Gun Law – Kind Of.

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What a surprise. A guy mows down more than 500 people with an assault rifle of some sort and all of a sudden Congressional Republicans, the NRA and their spokesperson, Donald Trump, are willing to have a ‘discussion’ about gun laws. Charles Grassley, who never met a law protecting 2nd-Amendment ‘rights’ he didn’t like, wants to hold hearings; Marco Rubio, who used a visit to Sturm, Ruger for a photo-op during his brief Presidential campaign wants to insure that there are no ‘vulnerabilities’ in federal gun laws (whatever that means); and even Rep. Mark Meadows, head of the Congressional Freedom Caucus (a.k.a what’s left of the Tea Party) is open to considering a gun bill.

LV             Most everyone in Gun-nut Nation fell into line once Trump mumbled something about a discussion on gun laws as he was getting ready to fly to Puerto Rico before going on to Vegas the following day. There were some holdouts, of course, such as the nuts from Gun Owners of America who consider themselves to be the true holder of the flame for gun rights, but they can be ignored. As for Rush, he had to come up with some pathetic defense of Trump’s new ‘soft’ position on guns, so he’s spinning the bizarrely-stupid idea that the President is ‘pretending’ to be for a gun bill in order to get the left-wing media off his back.

And then we have the response of our friends in Fairfax, who rather than waiting a week and then blasting away which is what they did after Sandy Hook, have released a written statement supporting the idea that the ATF should review the accessory known as a bump-stock which can be used to make an AR or AK-style rifle fire full-auto even though the trigger is still re-set to its firing position after every shot.

So both sides are getting a little bit of what they want: the pro-gun gang aren’t discussing the banning of an actual gun and the gun-control crowd can finally say that the industry’s attempt to pass off assault weapons as something they call ‘modern sporting rifles’ has just taken a big dent. But before the political posturing on both sides goes any further, there’s something you have to understand. Here we are a week beyond when the shots rang out, and we still don’t know out whether, in fact, a gun with a bump-stock was used at all.

The cops who busted into the shooter’s room didn’t need five minutes to figure out which gun or guns he used in the assault. The floor was evidently littered with spent shell casings; look down at one and you instantly know the caliber of the gun. Then walk around the room, grab every gun in that caliber, put your hand around the barrel and the amount of heat coming off the carbon steel identifies the requisite gun. The cops were actually too busy taking pictures which were sold or given to various news websites to worry about the guns, which means this all-important crime scene was contaminated beyond belief.

And if you think I’m coming down too hard on the Las Vegs cops who reacted to the rampage in about as quick and effective a way as they could, think again. Not only do we have pictures of the guns floating around, but there’s also a picture of Paddock lying on the floor obviously very bloody and very dead. Who first posted this gem? Alex Jones – who else!

So now the entire political ruling class begins a debate about gun violence without having the faintest idea what they are talking about. What if the shooter was using a legally-purchased full-auto gun? What if it turns out that he bought what the gun industry would like you to believe is a ‘modern sporting rifle’ and converted it into an automatic rifle without using a bump-stock? Engaging in a discussion about gun violence without any evidence-based information has become as normal as gun violence itself.

 

Is The Response To Bump-Stocks A Ban? Nope.

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So the bill to ‘ban’ bump-stocks isn’t a ban at all.  It forbids anyone from manufacturing, importing or selling these things and, oh yes, you also can’t smuggle one in. Which isn’t a ban.  A ban means that nobody can own the product – period.  Which means that current bump-stock owners would have to get rid of them, trash them, disassemble them, ship them to Honduras, whatever. That’s a ban. The Curbelo-Moulton bill isn’t a ban.

bump             When Australia decided to ban assault rifles after a mass shooting in 1996 that left 35 people dead and 23 wounded, the government not only prohibited the import, manufacture and sale of assault weapons, it also made the ownership of such guns previously purchased to be against the law. Which meant that Australians were going to lose property that had been purchased in a legal way.  That’s expropriation without compensation. And that’s what a ‘ban’ really means. Gone.

To get around this problem, the Australian government added a 2% tax to the national health insurance and used the revenue to compensate assault-rifle owners at a fair market price when they turned in their guns. Now let’s say, for sake of argument, that there are 100,000 bump-stocks floating around, and let’s say every bump-stock owner got $100 bucks for turning it in. That’s 10 million bucks. Hell, we spend more money buying bottled water every week. That’s nothing.

But the reason we won’t ban bump-stocks isn’t because of the chump-change for getting them all turned in; it would set an interesting, and for Gun-nut Nation a very ugly precedent for other gun bans.  And if there’s one thing which unites every member of Gun-nut Nation together in defense of their 2nd-Amendment ‘rights,’ it’s not that Mike Bloomberg is behind every, nefarious gun-control strategy that has ever been announced, it’s the idea that any restrictions on guns represents a ‘slippery-slope’ which will eventually lead to confiscation of all guns, or worse.

I’m not sure when the NRA began selling the idea that gun ownership was synonymous with ‘freedom,’ but every time any kind of gun-control idea rears its ugly head, the response invariably begins with some muddled nonsense about how guns make us ‘free.’ And if the cost of that ‘freedom’ is eighty or ninety people whose lives end each day because they got shot with a gun, how do you dare place a price-tag on the freedoms that Americans enjoy? After all, if it weren’t for that creep Bloomberg, the good folks in New York City would still enjoy the freedom to buy large-size, full-calorie drinks at sporting events and other public venues, and everyone knows that holding your assault rifle in one hand and a 24-ounce Coke in the other is as American as apple pie, obesity and 2nd-Amendment ‘rights.’

You think the same government which forks out a measly 10 mil for bump-stocks would even hiccup if it had to lay out $12 billion which is what it would cost to compensate owners for all the assault rifles laying around at $800 apiece?  We’re going to fork over $400 billion to give the three military services a new plane, the F35, which they really don’t need. Spend 3% of that dough to disarm America, then impose martial law, resettle the entire population of Syria and a few other Muslim countries within our borders and ship Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh off to the other side of the moon. I guarantee you this plan exists. You can also meet real, live Martians at Area 51.

The big problem for the NRA is how to figure out how an ‘armed citizen’ could have prevented what happened in Vegas last Sunday night. I’ve got it! Remember how Wayne-o said that every school should have an armed guard after Sandy Hook? Why not insist that every hotel busboy in Vegas be trained to carry and use a gun? I’m sure the NRA Training Division is already working on a new course entitled ‘Basic Gun Handling While Carrying A Tray.’

What Keeps Coming Out Of Vegas Is Really “Fake News.”

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Now that the investigation into the Las Vegas shooting has been going on for more than three days, the details coming out about what the shooter did and didn’t do in the room he occupied at the Mandalay haven’t clarified anything at all. To the contrary, the ‘evidence’ keeps creating more confusion every day. And by ‘evidence’ I’m not talking about a single, verifiable fact, but the continued on-the-record and off-the-record yapping by all kinds of law-enforcement experts who don’t know anything but keep shooting off their mouths.

vegas1             Here’s the latest from Jill Snyder, identified as the ATF agent-in-charge, who stated yesterday that Paddock had purchased 33 rifles and handguns in the last year, of which 12 of the semi-automatic rifles were then fitted with the bump-fire device which turns a semi-auto AR into a full-auto without either requiring a Class III – NFA license or breaking the law.

Great gugga-mugga! Even the Republicans are saying they are willing to consider a ‘ban’ on these things. Did you ever imagine that the NRA’s chosen people would state in public the idea that anything having to do with guns might actually be banned? Trump mentioned that although right now he’s busy praying for the victims but there might be time to discuss gun laws down the road.  The sacred 2nd-Amendment door has been opened a crack, Breitbart and Bannon are going nuts, but a law regulating guns in some way or another might actually get passed.

There’s only one little problem.  It doesn’t take 86 or so hours (the time which has now elapsed between ‘securing’ Paddock’s lair until right now) to figure out which of the 23 guns allegedly found in Paddock’s room were used by him to fire down at the crowd. Maybe it was a gun with a bump-fire device but maybe not. The news reports all say the floor was littered with empty shell casings; the casings identify the caliber of the gun that was fired, then check the barrels of the guns in that caliber to see the amount of powder residue and the temperature of the steel and you know. This doesn’t take 86 hours – it takes about 5 minutes to at least have a pretty good idea what you should be saying and not saying at a time when every word you say could be used to promote this agenda or that.

But why keep your mouth shut when this might be the only chance in your life to be able to say something that all the world is waiting to hear? On Wednesday, The New York Post carried a story which mentioned that one of the shell casings found on the floor was – get this – from the revolver that Paddock used to shoot himself in the head. Which means that first he blew his head off and then he emptied the revolver cylinder because the only way to remove an empty shell casing from a revolver is to manually unload the gun after it has been shot. Oh well, what’s the difference, a little detail here or there?

I’ll tell you the difference. People are struggling on both sides of the gun debate fence to decide for themselves what, if anything, is the connection between this particular event and the fact that more than 32,000 Americans will lose their lives this year because of guns.  How much will this toll be increased because of what Stephen Paddock did from a window in the Mandalay Bay?  A whole, big, one-tenth of one percent.

If Las Vegas provokes a serious debate about gun laws, I guarantee you that the debate will focus on this specific event as something which, going forward, needs to be eliminated or regulated through a new law. All the more reason why we need to get the facts straight and stop pretending that just because someone shoots their mouth off that what they say is based on facts.

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Why Own A Gun? Because It’s Fun.

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Back in 2006 one of GVP’s stellar researchers, Kristin Goss of Duke University, wrote a book in which she tried to explain why there was no mass movement for gun control in the United States. As opposed to mass movements which sought to end the Vietnam War, or reduce drunk driving, what she found after mass shootings like Columbine was the following pattern: “collective outrage, followed by a momentary flurry of unorganized calls and letters and donations from thousands of individuals, and then a quick return to the status quo.” Otherwise, the issue of gun violence would lie dormant between the random, high-profile shooting events.

gun-sales             Goss argues that the pro-gun folks were much more successful than the gun-control crowd in building a mass movement for two reasons: they were funded both by industry and private sources whose resources the gun-control groups couldn’t match; they took advantage of a fragmented, federalist political system which rewards political initiatives at the local level but frequently restricts the implementation of national policies even when such policies gain broad, popular support.

Is it time to revise Kristin’s argument about the lack of a mass movement for gun control given how the landscape appears to have changed in the ten years since she wrote her book? To some degree yes. Despite the sycophantic utterings by Forbes and various other pro-gun media outlets, the decision by Mike Bloomberg to pour 50 million bucks into gun-control initiatives each year isn’t chopped liver, and money like that always has an effect. There has also been a shift in the tactics of gun violence prevention (GVP) organizations towards a greater focus on state-level gun issues rather than only thinking and organizing in national terms; an example of this being the spread of laws which force persons served with a domestic abuse order to turn in their guns.

Of late there also appears to be some parity developing between the two sides on social media venues which have become an important, indeed necessary venue for how organizations connect with the folks they represent.  Right now on Facebook, the NRA page has 630,000 Likes, the Moms Demand page has 570K.  As for website traffic according to SimilarWeb, the NRA site registers around 300,000 visitors a month, visits to Everytown are around 200K every thirty days. How many years has the NRA been around? At least 150 years longer than Everytown or Moms – I would say that the numbers for those GVP sites are pretty substantial and pretty good.

On the other hand, over the last five days I received six email communications from the NRA, including three messages offering to sell me clothing, backpacks and all kinds of other consumer crap. During that same five-day period I received only three emails from the GVP, and every message consisted of asking me to donate money to the cause.  Several of the NRA emails were also straight out of the organization’s fundraising kit, but overall the NRA messaging did one thing that the GVP messaging didn’t do – it conveyed the idea that being involved with the NRA is not only important but also fun.

The idea that you can have a good time by being a member of America’s ‘oldest civil rights organization’ is an important aspect of the pro-gun messaging strategy that I’m not sure the GVP community understands. It certainly isn’t mentioned or analyzed in Kristin’s book. But later today I’m going to drive over to Marlborough where the semi-annual gun show is going on, and the reason I’m going to the show is the same reason that millions of people attend gun shows all over the country every weekend – the shows are fun. I can wander around, play with lots of guns, eat a hot dog and wash it down with a full-calorie drink and buy a Make America Great Again baseball cap for under five bucks.

Spending money on some useless junk may not be the preferred method for raising political awareness within the GVP, but it sure works for the NRA.

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