The New York Times Weighs In On Crime Guns.

Now that The New York Times devotes a portion of its editorial space to gun violence, we are treated to the contribution of op-ed writer Charles Blow.  And what Blow has decided to talk about is what is truly the elephant in the living room when it comes to gun violence, namely, the issue of stolen guns.  Obama mentioned the issue twice in the official White House press release outlining his new EO agenda on guns, but he tied it to expanding background checks by bringing more gun transactions under the rubric of regulated sales.

atf              To his credit, Blow dug up Sam Bieler’s 2013 article which cites data from Phil Cook’s 1997 article which estimates that as many as 500,000 guns might be stolen each year.  And having discovered this incredible number, Blow then throws up several remedies for the problem which will have no real impact at all.  They won’t have any impact because registering guns or requiring insurance for their ownership simply isn’t going to occur.  As for the idea that gun theft will go down as safe guns enter the civilian arsenal, even if a few were to finally hit the market, we still have 300 million+ unsafe guns lying around.

On the other hand, there are some steps that could be taken right now that would, I believe, have a substantial impact on the ability of law enforcement to identify and trace crime guns, a process which right now occurs in the most slipshod or piecemeal fashion when it occurs at all.  And these steps wouldn’t even require any legislation or executive orders; they could be accomplished easily and quickly if someone, anyone, would make the regulatory division of the ATF do what it is really supposed to do.

Why does the GVP advocacy community put so much time and effort into pushing the expansion of NICS-background checks into secondary transfers and sales? Because the ATF has been whining for 20 years that they can only trace a gun through its first, legal sale.  This is a lie.  The fact is that every time a gun is acquired by an FFL dealer it must be listed in his Acquisition & Disposition book.  This A&D book, along with the 4473 forms used to conduct background checks, can be inspected by the ATF whenever they enter a store.  Now It happens that 40% or more guns that are sold by retail dealers are used guns, many of which were sold previously out of the same store. Or they were first sold by the gun shop in the next town. Can the ATF ask a dealer to tell them the particulars of the last, as opposed to the first sale of a particular gun?  Of course they can – they own the entire contents of the A&D book.

The ATF trumpets the development of time-to-crime data which, they say, alerts them to questionable dealer behavior because the average TTC right now is about 12 years, so if guns sold by a particular dealer have a much shorter TTC, that dealer must be pushing guns out the back door.  But the fact is that since 40% of the sale dates of guns used to calculate TTC might not represent the last, legal sale, the TTC numbers published by the ATF are, to be polite, meaningless at best.

The ATF still sends trace requests by fax; the rest of the world, including all gun dealers, has discovered email as a more accurate and certainly efficient way to communicate back and forth.  If the ATF required dealers to keep their A&D book in Excel (which they actually recommend,) the dealer could scan his entire book immediately looking for a particular serial number and the ATF and local police would have a better chance of figuring out how and when a crime gun moved from legal to illegal hands.

You don’t need a new law, you don’t an Executive Order, you don’t need anything except some basic knowledge about the gun business in order to figure this out.

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How Much Does Gun Violence Cost? Mother Jones Has A New Number.

Economists and public health researchers have been trying to figure out the costs of gun violence for more than twenty years, and the latest estimate, just published in Mother Jones, puts the total tab at $229 billion. This isn’t the first time that attempts have been made to estimate gun violence costs; Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig published an entire book on the subject back in 2002, and they put the annual figure at $100 billion – surely the number couldn’t have more than doubled in the past 15 years,  particularly since the number of robberies, assaults and homicides have all declined from the earlier date.  In fact, the lead researcher for the Mother Jones piece, Ted Miller, said in 2010 that gun violence was costing the U.S. $170 billion, which means that somehow total costs have increased by 35% over the last five years.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not playing Monday-morning quarterback and casting aspersions or doubts on the research and analysis presented in Mother Jones.  Anyone who believes that gun violence isn’t a public health issue of major proportions might as well join Wayne-o, Chris Cox, Larry Keane and other professional gun delusionists in promoting the idea that guns don’t represent any risk at all.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a serious discussion among rational-minded folks about the ways in which we understand and frame the debate about guns.  The Mother Jones report is a serious contribution to that discussion and I’m responding to it on those terms.

conference program pic                The report breaks things down between direct and indirect costs, the former reflecting such expenses as medical care, policing, emergency services and penal  charges (courts and incarceration), the latter reflecting what the researchers call “less tangible” costs, such as lost income, quality of life impacts and labor replacement.  I would rather refer to these two categories by the qualitative value of the data, because most of the direct costs can be calculated from governmental budgets covering policing, medical care and penal institutions, whereas the indirect costs are estimates at best, and may or may not be based on any real numbers at all.  The direct costs of America’s annual gun carnage is estimated at less than 4% of the $229 billion total, of which incarceration accounted for 94% of the direct cost total for homicides, but only a fraction of that amount for each aggravated assault.  Miller and his associates claim that incarceration costs $414,000 per homicide; Cook and Ludwig set the cost at $244,000.  Could this number have nearly doubled in 15 years?  The overall gun violence costs appear to have more than doubled during the same period, so why not?

Moving from direct to indirect costs presents other types of data issues which I’m not sure are discussed with the sensitivity and acuity which they deserve.  The biggest one to me is the attempt to calculate the economic value of a human life which is based primarily on estimates of what that person would have earned had they lived out a normal life term.  And even though the report calculates the number to be significantly lower than estimates from various government agencies, any such estimate is based on assumptions about the economy’s long-term performance that may or may not be true. Those of us who watched out 401Ks shrivel in 2007-2008 or got called into the boss’s office at 4 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, know how dangerous it is to attempt to predict any degree of financial or economic performance out beyond the next couple of months.

When it comes to gun violence there’s a moral imperative – thou shalt not kill – which transcends any discussion about numbers even though the gun industry evidently feels that it doesn’t apply to them.  The cautions above should not detract at all from the value of this report which reminds us again that the real cost of gun violence, the cost to our humanity and decency, remains to be solved.

Want To Get Rid Of Guns? Let Everyone Get One.

There’s been lots of internet chatter about a new technology that allows anyone to print out and assemble their own gun.  The company that developed this interesting product, Defense Distributed, was ordered to remove the diagrams from their website but not until more than 100,000 downloads took place.  In order to make the gun you need a 3-D laser printer which runs about $1,600, plus about $25-worth of plastic and yes, the gun “functions,” according to some early tests, but it’s a single-shot, 22-caliber, and it shoots but not very well.

I think that if Mike Bloomberg is really serious about spending fifty million bucks to promote more effective gun control, he should consider bankrolling a company that will find a way to cheapen the cost of the printer, which would bring down the cost of the gun to perhaps less than what Glocks and other standard guns cost now.  At which point, I’ll bet you that all kinds of computer geeks will start developing software that will let people print out and assemble lots of different gun models – AR-15’s, concealable pistols – and you can kiss the gun industry goodbye.

Liberator pistol.

Liberator pistol.

Chances are, for technical reasons I won’t bother to explain, that the plastic gun will never work very well.  But imagine the demand for such products given the fact that as long as you don’t sell the thing to someone else, you don’t need any kind of license at all.  And since guns, like alcohol and tobacco, fall under excise tax regulations, you can’t really regulate home-made guns for the same reasons that someone who brews up his own wine down in his basement is not required to tell anyone what he’s doing as long as he consumes the booze himself.

But here’s the problem with home-made guns.  The point of alcohol and spirits is that they are made to be used up.  The problem with guns is that the damn things don’t break down no matter how often they are used.  I have a Browning Hi-Power pistol that was manufactured in the Herstal factory in 1968 and it shoots as well today as when I first pulled it out of the box.  Until my son “borrowed” it, I had a Colt 1911 pistol that was manufactured in 1919, and my son didn’t walk off with it because he wanted a gun that wouldn’t work. The esteemed gun researcher, Philip Cook, claimed that one-third of all crime guns recovered in Chicago were more than 20 years old.

Obama is correct.  Gun folks “cling” to their guns because those guns are the only thing they ever bought that didn’t immediately break.  Computers last 2-3 years, the average car has been on the road for 11 years, some of the glassware you bought last month at Crate and Barrel didn’t survive three weeks.  But like that old Timex ad says, guns take a licking and keep on ticking.  And not only do they keep ticking, they are also cheap as hell.  I bought a new 1911 pistol in 1979 for 300 bucks.  There’s an internet reseller who will deliver a 1911 pistol to your favorite local dealer for $450, which includes overnight UPS.  That’s hardly a big increase in price considering that we are talking about thirty-five years.

Turning guns into mainstream consumer products has always been the dream of the NRA.  And a plastic gun that kind of works is no different from the cheap iPhones and droids which also kind of work.  When guns become just another cheap, disposable consumer item, they may sell like crazy but they’ll do much less harm.  After all, it’s kind of tough to make people think that they can defend themselves with a gun when they know that after one or two shots they might as well throw the thing away.

 

 

 

Want To Read A Good Book About Guns? Here It Is And I Didn’t Write It.

Philip Cook and Kristin Goss have published a very important book which deserves everyone’s attention for two reasons: First, the authors are without doubt two of the best-informed and serious gun scholars publishing today, and second, they have written a very balanced and well-documented essay that objectively summarizes the state of the gun argument on both sides of the debate.  The Gun Debate is a book that needs to be read and then discussed seriously, which is what I am going to do right now.

cookWhat I like most of all about the book is that the authors, as they cover each and every point, are careful to demonstrate that there’s a kernel of truth in every argument presented by both sides regarding the good news and bad news about guns.  Whether it’s the pro-gun position that guns protect us against crime, or the anti-gun position that more guns equals more violent crime, Cook and Goss are careful to show that there’s at least some data that either side can use to bolster their point of view.  In other words, what we finally get in the gun debate is a book that sets out to be balanced in the hopes, according to the authors, “that there’s still a possibility of a reasoned discussion based on the best available information.”  The foregoing is how the book ends and there’s no question that by the time you get to that closing sentence, you will have been treated to the best available information.  The book really is that good.

But here’s the bad news.  In aspiring to produce a work that treats both points of view seriously and objectively, the authors assume a degree of parity in terms of the motivations and objectives of both sides in the gun debate which simply isn’t true.  The tip-off in this respect is the frequent use of the words like ‘scholar’ or ‘scholarship’ when referring to articles and books published by authors whose positions on issues can be basically described as pro-NRA.   For example, they refer to the “terrible oversight” committed by historians who paid little attention to gun control policies as an aspect of the consolidation of Nazi power after 1933, an omission now thankfully corrected by the “scholarship” of a self-proclaimed expert on Constitutional gun law named Stephen Halbrook.  He has been peddling this Nazi nonsense for years, and it is brandished about by the NRA as part of their ‘slippery-slope‘ strategy to shoot down gun control regulations of any sort.  The reason why historians have ignored this aspect of the Nazi regime is that it is of no consequence in explaining how and why the most educated and advanced society in Western Europe could embrace a government that was based on such savagery and hate.  One doesn’t become a ‘scholar’ simply by writing about something that real scholars have decided doesn’t need to be discussed.

The strength of the NRA lies in the fact that they represent a constituency which, when it comes to gun control, has something tangible to lose; namely, their guns.  You can dress it up any way you choose – fighting for America’s freedoms, fighting for civil rights, fighting for family values.  But none of those fights would engage even a fraction of the current NRA membership if behind all those battles wasn’t the possibility that their guns would be taken away.  And to the author’s credit, they understand why this tangible loss faced by gun owners far outstrips the theoretical gains that gun control would yield for the other side.

The NRA and its pro-gun allies has absolutely no interest in supporting real scholarship or coming to the table for a ‘reasoned’ debate. Because abandoning their hard-core, extremist position would mean they were perhaps willing to admit the possibility that the other side had something worthwhile to say.  In which case, what’s the point of being a pro-gun advocate at all?  If only 25 percent of Americans own guns, then the job of the NRA and its ‘scholar’ allies is to figure out how to get guns into the hands of the other 75 percent. Isn’t that what the gun debate is really all about?