My friends at The Trace have just published a document that has floated around gun circles since it first appeared in 2003 as an affidavit in a liability case against the gun industry that was one of a number of class-action torts which came to a crashing end in 2005. Bob Ricker, the deposition’s author, had been an NRA attorney and gun-industry lobbyist who then went over to the ‘other side’ and began working in favor of more stringent industry regulations as a way to keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’
Much of what is in this document was similar to what the Clinton Administration said about the gun industry when it tried to get gun makers to adopt better self-policing in return for an immunity from class-action suits. This effort ultimately went nowhere, but much of what Ricker claims to have been standard practice in the industry has influenced discussions within the GVP community, along with shaping strategies that are followed by GVP advocate to this day. Which therefore leads me to ask two questions: (1). What does Ricker actually say, and (2). Is what he says really true?
Here’s the key point as quoted from the affidavit itself: “The firearms industry has long known that the diversion of firearms from legal channels to the black market occurs principally at the distributor/dealer level.” Not only does the firearms industry know this, but so does everyone else. And the fact that the industry, according to Ricker, had not taken “constructive voluntary action to prevent firearms from ending up in the illegal gun market” is, in and of itself, neither here nor there. The reason it’s neither here nor there is that the one, voluntary action that Ricker mentions (Par. 12 of the affidavit) is that manufacturers and wholesalers could more closely monitor the sales practices of dealers, rather than just shipping guns to anyone with a valid FFL.
Ricker’s affidavit goes on to tie better policing of FFL business practices to the illegal diversion of guns to criminal hands through straw sales, gun shows and the like. The only problem is that while we have all heard about ‘bad apple’ dealers as well as the proliferation of unregulated internet sales as two sources of illegal guns, nobody including the ATF has ever come up with an evidence-based number for exactly how many guns move from legal to illegal commercial channels each year. Garen Wintemute estimates that as many as 40,000 straw sales were attempted annually, but he has no data on how many of those attempts actually result in a gun moving from an FFL’s inventory into illegal hands.
Let’s play devil’s advocate for a minute and pretend that all of those 40,000 attempted straw sales go through. Sounds like a lot of guns going into the wrong hands, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s a pittance compared to the way in which most guns in this country wind up in the wrong hands, and I don’t notice anyone talking about that issue at all.
Back in 1994, Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig published the most comprehensive survey on gun ownership that I have ever seen. Now if the Nobel Prize Committee decided to give an award for gun research, it would have to go to Phil Cook. He not only practically invented the entire field of gun violence research, but his work, then and now, is impeccable and should be accepted without question as the best of breed.
And what did he learn about how guns get into the wrong hands? He learned that perhaps as many as 600,000 guns were stolen every year, this at a time when the total number of guns owned by Americans was 50% less than it is now! Are you telling me that we can have a substantive conversation about reducing gun violence without asking how to prevent the theft of guns? Gun theft isn’t the elephant in the GVP living room, it’s the whole house.