Do We Really Know How Many Americans Own Guns?

1 Comment

Everybody knows that the size of the private American gun arsenal is somewhere between 270 and 325 million guns. Because we have never put together any kind of national gun registration, these estimates are based on two data sets: on the one hand, we simply take the total number of guns produced each year and add it to the number of guns we believe were floating around at some point in time; or we run public surveys and ask a ‘representative national sample’ of Americans to state how many guns they actually own.

hoarder             Last year our friends at Harvard and Northeastern made a big splash with a new survey showing that the percentage of American households containing guns was continuing to go down, but the average number of guns in each household was going up. In fact, this study found that roughly 3 percent of American adults own, on average, 17 guns or more, the collections of these ‘super hoarders’ accounting for nearly half of all privately owned guns.

I wonder if a guy in South Carolina named Brent Nicholson was one of the respondents to the Harvard-Northeastern survey, because if he wasn’t, perhaps the authors of the survey might have to amend their remarks.  It turns out that Nicholson amassed perhaps as many as 10,000 guns in various sheds and barns on his property, a stash that filled four, 40-foot trailers that were filled to the brim and then hauled away by the cops to be processed and stored.

The latest survey from Gallup says that 42% of American households contain guns, a number which is somewhat higher than the estimate by our friends at Harvard-Northeastern, as well as being above the latest estimate from the gun research group at the Bloomberg Public Health School. The problem with all these estimates, however, is that they fail to account for one, major category of privately-owned guns, namely, guns whose owners aren’t really allowed under law to own guns. And if you think that the number of households that contain an illegal gun wouldn’t really change the overall numbers of how guns found in U.S. homes, think again. Because the estimates on the number of stolen guns each year ranges from 250,000 to more than half a million, and I don’t think that many of those guns wind up being hoarded by guys like Nicholson who, by the way, sat in a local jail for 14 months awaiting trial, but after pleading to receiving stolen goods he was sentenced to – time served!

Let’s see, if 350,000 guns are stolen each year (I’m cutting the high versus low estimates in half) and each one of them ends up in a different set of hands, then over the last ten years the number of households which contain at least one gun would be maybe 4 or 5 million more than what the estimates claim that number to be. Now the real question remaining unanswered is this: has the percentage of Americans who own guns gone down, or has the real percentage gone up because the last thing someone is going to tell Gallup, Pew, Bloomberg or Harvard-Northeastern is whether they happen to have an illegal gun, right?

Which brings me to the real reason for writing today’s rant, namely, that I have never felt comfortable with either the GVP or the gun-rights gangs being all so enamored about legal guns. The only reason that Wayne-o and the boys from Fairfax always talk about ‘law-abiding’ gun owners is they want you to think that we can solve the gun violence problem by simply locking up all those bad guys who commit crimes with guns. As for my GVP friends, they keep talking about keeping guns out of the ‘wrong hands,’ which is just a more polite way of saying that the ‘bad guys’ shouldn’t be allowed to own guns.

Want to prevent a certain product from getting into the market when the market is based on consumer demand?  Stop making the product – there’s no other way.






What’s The Connection Between ‘Weak’ Gun Laws And Gun Violence? I’m Not Sure.


Now that the Trump Administration has made it clear that creating new gun regulations is hardly a national priority, I’d like to recommend to my friends in the gun violence prevention (GVP) community that perhaps they would step back and rethink the issue of the alleged connection between federal gun laws and gun violence; i.e., the belief that fewer federal gun laws leads to more criminal and accidental misuse of guns.

traffic             I’m not saying that we should do away with laws which regulate the purchase, ownership and use of guns.  I’m saying that GVP needs to be a little more sensitive to the assumption that more federal guns laws equals less gun violence because at the federal level we aren’t about to see any more laws. And what the GVP community needs to do most of all is stop assuming that just because a bunch of guns from one state end up getting sold to bad guys in another state, that this means the way to fix the problem is to pass new federal laws.

Here’s a fer-instance:  The Brooklyn DA announces that he is charging 24 putzes, most of whom are Blood members, with trafficking 217 guns into Kings County, including 41 assault weapons, and selling them on the street.  The weapons, according to the DA, were ‘purchased’ in Virginia and his indictment ‘highlighted the need for federal gun control to help stem the flow of thousands of illegal guns from the South.’  And what was the evidence produced to show that these jerkoff gun sellers were exploiting (as one media report called it) the ‘weak’ gun laws in Virginia?  It was a wiretap comment made by one of the jerkoffs named Antwan Walker (a.k.a. Twan) that he could go into any gun store in Virginia and buy as many guns as he could put into a car and take up to New York.

Now let’s assume for the sake of argument that my man Twan was actually telling the truth, even though the chances that he has ever told the truth about anything is probably about as great as the chances that we will ever hear a truthful statement from #45. But the point is that if Twan could go into a licensed gun dealer and buy even one gun, he had to be able to pass a NICS background check, which means he had to have a clean record or else he would not have been able to walk out of the store with the gun.

Guess what?  The gun law which allowed our the gun-trafficking expert Twan to go into a shop and buy 50 guns and take them up to New York was the exact, same federal law which would have regulated the sale of those guns to Twan in whatever state he happened to live. So the idea that all those Southern guns are coming up to New York because Southern states have ‘weak’ gun laws isn’t necessarily true.

Now someone might say but Mike, isn’t it easier to buy guns in Virginia because that state doesn’t require background checks for secondary (i.e., non-dealer) sales? Which happens to be the case in 39 other states besides Virginia, but our young gun trafficker (a.k.a. Twan) didn’t say anything over the phone about getting guns through private sales.  Know why? Because Twan and everybody else who wants to move guns from gun-rich states like Virginia to gun-poor cities like Big Apple doesn’t have to pay for the merchandise at all. They just have to walk down any residential street, break into a private home and I guarantee you they’ll find plenty of guns to steal.

With reliable estimates of between 200,000 and 400,000 handguns stolen each year, why does the GVP community sit around bemoaning the fact that there are so many ‘straw’ sales? I’m totally in favor of extending background checks to secondary sales BTW; I just don’t think it has much to do with how those guns end up on Brooklyn streets, no matter what Twan was heard to say.


Where Do Crime Guns Come From? Not Necessarily From Where You Think.

1 Comment

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.’

gun safe              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.


Do Guns End Up In The ‘Wrong’ Hands Because Of Straw Sales? I’m Not So Sure.

1 Comment

Last week I wrote a commentary about the silly, little public service announcement on gun safety produced by the NSSF and pointed out that its message about how to talk to kids about guns had little to do either with kids or with guns.  But the real point of the video was to align the gun industry with safety, family and all those other traditional values that you would think were invented by Daniel Baird Wesson and Horace Smith.  After all, marketing is marketing, right?

But I have been thinking about this issue of gun safety from a different perspective, because I believe that both sides in the gun debate tend to emphasize safety issues that reflect their basic approach to the existence, ownership and use of guns and, in this respect, may be overlooking what the paramount issue of gun safety is really all about.

theft                Ask the average gun-control advocate to tell you the Numero Uno on the agenda and they will probably say something about comprehensive NICS background checks.  This issue, more than any other, has defined the battlefield for the gun-sense community since the Manchin-Toomey Amendment went down the drain after Sandy Hook. And there have been some notable victories in this respect, of which the biggest, recent win was in Washington State where all gun transfers now require contacting the NICS-FBI and the use of an ATF Form 4473.

On the other side, the NRA and its allies continue to promote the idea that gun laws do nothing to promote gun safety because criminals don’t obey laws.  Which means passing a gun-control measure only makes it more of a legal and financial burden on law-abiding gun owners, without any consequent impact on crime.  Instead, the pro-gun community believes that the responsibility for insuring gun safety should be left in gun-owning hands; hence the NSSF video promoting some compassionate and timely discussions between Ma, Pa and the kids.

What’s interesting about the disagreement about gun safety is that both sides agree on the goal, which is to reduce the number of times each year that using a gun results in serious harm.  And when we talk about the harmful use of guns, with all due respect to concerns about unintentional gun injuries of which there are (relatively speaking) very few, or gun suicides in which it’s not clear whether the suicide rate would be all that different if guns weren’t used, what we’re really talking about are the 275,000+ murders, robberies and aggravated assaults committed with guns every year.  That’s a lot of folks who end up dead, wounded or seriously traumatized, and nobody disagrees – at least in theory – that something needs to be done.

There are somewhere between 40 and 50 million households containing at least one gun.  Break into .005% of those residences, steal one gun and the ‘wrong hands’ arsenal increases by 200,000 guns every year.  When you have more than 300 million guns floating around, even a tiny percentage like half of one percent adds up to a lot of crime guns. Know what part of the country has the highest amount of gun theft?  The South. The part of the country with the highest per capita ownership of guns has the highest rate of gun theft as well. Gee – what a surprise!

The ATF has decided that if a gun is picked up at a crime scene less than three years after it was originally sold, then the transfer that first put that gun into the civilian population must have been a straw sale.  But I can’t find any data which tells me whether or when that same gun was stolen from its rightful owner, so to assume that guns move from ‘right’ hands to ‘wrong’ hands through some conscious behavior on the part of the initial, legal owner is to assume something that may not be true at all.  And in all the discussions about gun safety, somehow the issue of theft always seems to get overlooked.


%d bloggers like this: