My friends at Harvard and Northeastern have just given us another tantalizing bit of data from their new survey on gun-owning Americans, in this case an estimate of how many guns are transferred from one person to another without a background check. And what they claim is that roughly one out of every five guns that were acquired over the last two years moved between one person and another without a NICS check. Which is roughly half the percentage of unchecked sales from the figure provided by Philip Cook who is given credit in today’s Trace for stating that “as many as 40 percent of gun sales are conducted without a background check” in 1994.
Except there’s one little problem. This 40% estimate has been floating around and repeated by every gun-control advocacy organization lo these many years, but that’s not what Professor Cook actually said. What Phil Cook actually said was, “We conclude that approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions involved an FFL and hence were subject to Federal regulations on such matters as out-of-State sales, criminal history checks, and recordkeeping.” And he couldn’t have said it because there was no background check system in 1994. The current FBI-NICS system wasn’t up and running until late 1998. Which is why the background check data published by the FBI begins in 1999. Oh well, what’s the difference? A year here, a year there – no big deal, right?
I bought my first gun from an FFL-dealer in 1976. I had just moved from New Jersey to South Carolina, arrived on a Tuesday, traded my Jersey driver’s license for a South Carolina license on Wednesday, and bought a Ruger Mark I on Thursday. I filled out the federal form, showed the dealer my driver’s license, gave him a hundred bucks and got the gun. All the dealer knew was that I said I had not committed a serious crime. He didn’t even know whether I was a South Carolina resident because I could have moved to another state and not yet exchanged for a license somewhere else. So like Phil Cook said, I was ‘subject to Federal regulations’ when I bought that gun. Big friggin’ deal.
And this is how allegedly reliable information floats around the gun world; a reputable scholar (if they gave a Nobel Prize in gun research I would nominate Phil Cook) is misquoted, what he said is then used to justify God knows how many attempts – some successful, some not – to widen the scope of background checks, and now we have the next, serious attempt to figure out how many gun transfers are caught by the background-check system, using what Phil Cook actually didn’t say to compare the progress we’ve made over the last twenty years.
To Professor Cook’s credit, he admits that he never directly asked participants about background checks, so we have actually no way of figuring out whether the new published data from Miller, Hepburn and Azrael should be a cause for rejoicing or not. But before everyone jumps on the bandwagon and starts the New Year off by celebrating this bit of hopeful news, let me break it to you gently.
If you think the NRA’s ability to cast doubt on serious gun research was a factor in convincing a majority of Americans that having a gun lying around the house is a good thing, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Because it’s one thing when the argument is made by an organization like the NRA which is in business to help gun makers sell guns. The first policy statement that (ugh) Donald Trump ever made on the campaign trail was a statement backing gun ‘rights’ and denying the need for expanded background checks.
The Gun-sense community isn’t going up against a former Congressional aide who sits in Fairfax, VA and tapes a video now and again. The opposition is now be led by the Commander in Chief, who would just love to tweet that gun-control advocates don’t know the facts. So what we say better be right.
CORRECTION: The article in The Trace did not identify Professor Cook by name as the individual who first stated that 40% of gun transfers did not involve a background check. The article referred to ‘experts’ which I assumed were Cook and his co-author Jens Ludwig since they published their work, referred to above, in 1994.