If We Curb Straw Sales Do We Curb Gun Crime? I’m Not So Sure.

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Last week the NSSF announced they were going to bring their Don’t Lie for the Other Guy billboard campaign to Oakland, CA, Wilmington, DE and Camden, NJ.  They claim that the campaign will generate more than 11 million weekly “media” impressions, which I guess is the number of people who might drive past these billboards in a week.  I always thought that the only roadside billboard which made any impression on drivers was the one that reads Next Exit, but the NSSF probably knows something about advertising that I don’t know.

The gun industry has been promoting this campaign for years, the idea being that conducting a background check for over-the-counter transfers deters “straw” sales. The industry has also been fighting tooth and nail to prevent background checks on transfers of guns that take place outside of a gun shop, but since you can’t lie on a background check form if there is no background check form, in their own stupid way at least the NSSF’s Don’t Lie campaign is nothing if not consistent.

dont lie               One area in which both sides of the gun debate appear to agree is the idea that straw sales are a major source of guns that end up being used in crime.  Obviously the Don’t Lie campaign is based on this premise;  ditto are statements from the various gun-safety advocacy groups.  But when it comes to getting on the Let’s Stop Straw Sales bandwagon, nobody outdoes the ATF.  Not only does ATF partner with the NSSF in the Don’t Lie campaign, but they take the whole thing a step further by running educational seminars for dealers and distributing thousands of Don’t Lie campaign kits to gun shops nationwide. The ATF takes this issue very serious because, according to them, “The denial of guns to prohibited persons is critical to the mission of ATF in preventing violent crime and protecting the nation.”

Which brings us full circle back to the reason for the concern about straw sales in the first place, namely, keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  The idea that we can deter crime by defining certain groups of crime-prone people who are, ipso facto, unable to legally acquire a gun was the basic premise of the GCA68, as well as the Brady bill of 1994. According to the FBI, more than 700,000 gun transfers were denied over the past ten years, which resulted in “saving lives and protecting people from harm.”  In other words, thanks to the NICS system, roughly 70,000 people each year were prevented by NICS from getting their ‘wrong hands’ on guns.  Which brings up some interesting questions:  If 70,000 would-be criminals couldn’t walk into a gun shop each year and briefly thereafter depart with a gun, how come the number of gun homicides since 2000 hasn’t declined at all?  How come the overall rate of firearm violence has not essentially changed since 2003?

I’ll tell you why.  Because maybe, just maybe the ability of criminals to get their ‘wrong’ hands on all those crime guns doesn’t have all that much to do with straw sales.  The Justice Department estimates that at least 200,000 guns are stolen each year, and that’s probably a minimal number at best. Of course the ATF will chime in and tell you that each year they have done more than 300,000 traces of confiscated guns over the same period of time, but if you look at their trace reports carefully you’ll notice that less than 20% involved guns picked up in serious crimes.

One way or another at least 100,000 – 150,000 guns get added to the ‘wrong hands’ arsenal each year without anyone committing a straw purchase at all.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against extending background checks to secondary transactions or private sales.  But for the last twenty years I’ve been listening to public health scholars and gun-safety advocates promote the necessity to curb straw sales and now the chorus also includes the NSSF. Anyone interested in doing something about theft?

Drugs And Guns: The Latest From Camden

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New York Shipbuilding Yard

New York Shipbuilding Yard

The last time anyone got a good job in Camden, NJ was during World War II, when the city, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, was the location of  the largest shipyard in the world, the New York Shipbuilding Yard, which turned out more than 500 naval vessels before it closed after the war.  Camden is still the headquarters of the Campbell Soup Co., but the corporate executives stay in a gated building out of habit since nobody even remembers when the plant turned out its last can of soup. The irony is that Camden’s waterfront sits directly across from Philadelphia, where waterfront property values  have skyrocketed because of an influx of luxury hotels, high-end restaurants and trendy boutiques.

In Camden, on the other hand, the word ‘blight,’ which is usually how poor neighborhoods are described, would probably apply to the entire town.  And while Camden isn’t quite as dangerous as East St. Louis, the city recorded 57 homicides in 2013, which puts its murder rate up there with places like Cali and Medellin, the location of the world’s most active and vicious narcotics cartels.  That should hardly come as a surprise, however, because the one industry which seems to be thriving in Camden is the drug business, whose chief gang, headed up by three brothers, – Omar, Edwin and Edgar Urbina – have been running an open-air drug market for years in Camden’s North End. The November raid that resulted in the arrests of the gang leaders and nearly 50 suppliers, deliverers, baggers and other gang associates, also brought about the seizure and requisite display of a stash of cash, six guns and five ounces of cocaine.

Even if a lot of drugs sold by the Urbinas and other Camden gangs go into the hands and veins of local residents, what has always made Camden a center for the drug trade is its location adjacent to many wealthy communities whose residents and police departments find it convenient to encourage drug purchases in another town.  The drive-by nature of Camden’s drug business encouraged local law enforcement to begin stopping, searching and occasionally arresting non-residents who drove a little too slowly through the town.  But when the Camden PD laid off half its officers following a budget standoff with Chris Christie, what had been a badly-managed effort to control the local drug market only got much worse.

What I find interesting in this situation is the fact that nobody seems to find it unusual or unsettling that the products sold by the drug gangs in Camden come from thousands of miles away.  In fact, whenever a major dope dealer is arrested, there’s always some mention of a connection to a drug cartel in Mexico, Colombia or somewhere else.  But the same law enforcement experts who tell you that it’s impossible to interdict the movement of drugs into and through the United States, will also tell you that if we extend NICS background checks to private transactions, we’ll be able to put a real dent in the movement of illegal guns.

When I was a teenager living in Staten Island, NY, we knew about Camden, and it was rumored that some of the drugs that came into my neighborhood had been purchased in drive-buys by some of my friends. That was fifty years ago and it’s clear that the situation hasn’t really changed.  If anything, the growth of affluent suburbs around Philly has made Camden even a bigger and better hot-spot for illegal drugs.  If the drug gangs have no trouble going to Mexico for cocaine, how difficult could it be to get their hands on a few guns?