Sorry, But What’s Wrong With Gun Control?


I’m probably going to get a lot of bad press for what I’m about to say, but it goes with the territory so I might as well say it right now: I don’t see anything wrong with talking about gun control. Not responsible, not reasonable, not sensible.  Gun control.  Control, control, control.  And the reason I believe in gun control is very simple: It’s the only way we can hope to really make a dent in a public health issue that kills or injures more than 125,000 Americans every year.

conference-program-pic              Right now I am listening to a very good podcast from an online forum called The Other Washington entitled “Gun Responsibility,” which covers the events leading up to the passage of Initiative 594 in Washington State which expanded background checks to all transfers of guns. And the commentators point out that expanded background checks have overwhelming support, even among gun owners, which makes this kind of regulatory initiative ‘sensible’ because everyone thinks it should be done.  But then the commentators veer off in another direction, justifying I-594 by noting that states with the ‘strongest’ gun laws have the lowest rates of gun violence.

Guess what?  Know what the phrase ‘strong gun laws’ means?  It means gun control, folks, period, end of story. And I happen to live in one of those states, Massachusetts, which is given a B+ rating for its gun laws, and if the gun laws in my state don’t amount to gun control, then I don’t know what does.  In Massachusetts private transactions must be registered not with NICS but with the state, police have the arbitrary authority to deny or impose conditions on the issuance of a gun license even if the applicant passes the background check, and the Attorney General can determine which handguns can and cannot be sold based on whether the design of the weapon is considered child-safe; which means that a civilian can’t buy, among other products, a Glock.  And by the way, the safe storage law, if violated, carries a four-year stretch in jail.

It just so happens, no surprise, that Massachusetts also has the second-lowest gun violence rates of all 50 states. So if ‘strong’ gun laws lead to less gun violence, and gun laws are usually ‘strong’ precisely because they regulate the movement of guns and the issuance of licenses to own guns, why do we continue to pretend that words like ‘sensible’ and ‘responsible’ mean something different from what the words ‘gun control’ mean? And if anyone actually thinks that by avoiding the term ‘gun control’ that somehow the NRA will hang an ‘out to lunch’ placard on the office door when a ‘reasonable’ gun regulation is being discussed, I strongly enjoin you to think again.  Because Gun Nation isn’t interested in any law, any regulation, any kind of anything being done to change or redefine America’s alleged love affair with guns.

But, you counter, it’s not the NRA we are trying to convince.  It’s all those undecided, decent folks in the ‘middle’ who could be brought over if we convince them that we aren’t trying to ride roughshod over the 2nd Amendment and push all gun owners down that veritable slippery slope.  I think this is wishful thinking and I also think it denigrates the ability of most Americans to understand issues when they are given all the facts.  The Surgeon General’s report on smoking risk was released in 1964, a time when less than 50% believed that smoking was a health risk. By 1980, more than 80% of Americans believed that smoking caused lung cancer, and since then no state has made smoking illegal, but 28 states have passed laws prohibiting smoking in most public places, including restaurants and bars.

Guns are lethal.  Guns are dangerous.  Guns are a risk to public health.  Controlling guns is not sensible or responsible.  Controlling guns needs to take place.  And you won’t speed up the process by trying to somehow camouflage what it is you want and should do.

Want To Bet Against Background Checks? You Might Lose.

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Score another win for the gun-sense team.  On Monday the Governor of Oregon, Kate Brown, signed into law a bill that basically requires background checks for all gun transfers in the state. The measure is similar to the I-594 initiative that now requires universal background checks in neighboring Washington State.  So now, with a few exceptions, anyone living on the West Coast between Canada and Mexico must undergo the NICS background check process in order to buy, sell, or transfer a gun.

I wouldn’t necessarily take the short odds against background checks becoming law of the land, if only because although we usually think our country was settled east to west, in fact much of our culture has moved west to east. California was already settled by Spanish conquistadores and their descendants while Virginia, Massachusetts and the other colonies were still largely woods, and much of our modern culture first appeared on the West Coast in the form of movies and tv. I first heard of ‘health food’ when I went from New York to teach at Berkeley in 1976. And let’s not forget where Starbucks got started, ditto Ronald Reagan and the ‘modern conservative movement’ along with half-and-half.

nics                I have no issue with the notion that background checks keep guns out of the ‘wrong hands.’  I also don’t believe the nonsense thrown around by so-called 2nd-Amendment ‘absolutists’ that background checks are a violation of their constitutional rights. But we shouldn’t just assume that because the FBI says that slightly more than 1 million NICS transactions have been denied since the system became operational in 1998 that this somehow translates into one million guns being kept away from the ‘wrong hands,’ which means kept away from people who will use those guns to commit violence and crimes.

We really don’t know why violent crime rates, particularly gun crime rates, have dropped by 50% over the last twenty years.  And because we don’t know why this has occurred, it’s not clear that any of the solutions, including background checks, will result in gun violence dropping any more. I’m not suggesting that we should stop strengthening gun regulations just because, to parrot the NRA, criminals don’t obey laws.  If we used criminal response to laws as a criteria for judging the effectiveness of our legal codes, we would never pass a single statute at all.  What I am suggesting is that if we continue to define gun violence as a preventable public health issue, which is how we have been defining it since 1981, we should set realistic goals for reductions in gun violence and use these goals to judge the effectiveness of the policies and strategies that are espoused.

In fact, the CDC has adopted what they believe to be realistic goals for reductions in gun violence over the next five years.  These goals call for a 10% reduction by 2020 in gun homicides, non-fatal shootings and children bringing guns into schools.  I think the time has come for activists who are working to end gun violence to sit down, en masse, and figure out whether the CDC numbers are realistic, or need to be adjusted, or need to be replaced by a different set of criteria and a different set of goals.  And the gun industry should be invited to participate in this discussion as well.

The gun industry used to count on the fact that the upsurge in concern about gun violence which followed every high-profile shooting would quickly run its course.  Frankly, I thought the groundswell provoked by Sandy Hook would be over by the time the first anniversary of the tragedy rolled around.  But recent events in Washington State and Oregon have proven me wrong. And when it comes to public health policies, things have a way of taking on a momentum and a life of their own. As I said early on, I wouldn’t take the short odds against more gun regulations down the line.



For Guns, Red States Are Red, Blue States Are Still Blue

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If this election said  anything about the politics of guns, it showed that the alignment between political ideology and gun ownership is just about as fixed as it can be.  If you are a pro-gun politician in a red state, the gun issue won’t help you win a close race because everyone in the red states tends to be pro-gun.  If you are a pro-gun politician in a blue state, however, try as you might, the pro-gun folks just can’t swing an election your way and gun control initiatives have a good chance to succeed.

Last year, right around the anniversary of Sandy Hook, the  New York Times ran a state-by-state analysis of new gun statutes that were passed and signed into law.  It turned out that more than 1,500 measures were introduced into state legislatures, of which 39 tightened laws tightened what the Times called “restrictions” and 70 loosened them.  The study showed, not surprisingly, that most of the more restrictive laws were passed where Democrats hold a majority of the legislative seats and the Governor’s Mansion or both, whereas the less-restrictive laws were passed in states that are politically red.

In last week’s election the alignment of red and blue states with looser or tighter gun laws continued its usual course.  Washington passed I-594 because going directly to the voters was a way of getting around a legislature which is more  blue than red but has some Democrats representing areas away from the Coast where gun ownership is supported on both sides.  On the other hand, Alabama passed an amendment to the State Constitution that gave every resident the right to bear arms and required any gun control laws to be subject to ‘strict scrutiny,’ which basically means that no gun control laws will ever be passed.  Could an amendment bringing back the poll tax pass a statewide vote in the Cotton State?  Probably.

malloy                The interesting twist in all of this came in a blue state – Connecticut – where the incumbent Governor held on to win by a thin margin in an election that many thought would go the other day.  The Governor, Dan Malloy, held on to beat Tom Foley, who was challenging him for the second time and Foley tried to remind the voters again and again that if elected, he would try to undo the tough, new gun law that Malloy pushed through the legislature after Sandy Hook.  After the bill went into effect stories circulated about how thousands and thousands of CT residents were refusing to register their assault rifles, but when all was said and done, nobody thought to call out the police to ransack homes and drag in all these alleged non-compliant owners of black guns.

Foley never actually said he would repeal Malloy’s gun law even though again and again he said it went “too far.” But criticizing the new law was one thing, taking credit for it was something else.  And a new poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress suggests that Malloy may actually owe his razor-thin victory, in part, to how voters, particularly female voters responded to his legislation on guns.  It turns out that 43% of nearly 700 voters said that the gun bill made them more likely to send the Governor back to office for another four years, while only 31% felt less likely to vote for him over the gun issue and support for universal background checks among women ran 50 to 19.

It will be interesting to see if the gun issue will play a significant role in the run-up to 2016.  It’s clearly still a “niche” issue, and niche issues can swing tight elections as the Foley campaign found out.  The NRA, whose own approval numbers appear to be slipping, has been trying to sell the idea for years that gun ownership is a basic civil right.  It might be a line that sells in Peoria, but it’s not working in parts of the country that still vote blue.


Can Bloomberg Win A Big One In Washington State?

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Everyone on both sides of the gun debate will be watching the vote in Washington State on I-594, which would expand background checks to nearly all private transfers of guns.  Like most states, Washington does not require a background check for transfers between individuals, only transfers conducted by federally-licensed dealers tied into the FBI-NICS system.  The issue has become an early test of the strength of Mike Bloomberg’s recently-announced strategy to promote gun-control initiatives at the state, rather than the federal level.  Hence, media interest has been intense.

As part of the pre-election game plan, Bloomberg’s group Everytown just rolled out a new report, “Online and Off the Record,” which documents the ability of disqualified individuals to circumvent background checks by purchasing guns listed for private sale on websites like www.armslist.com.  Armslist is kind of like a Craigslist for gun sales (Craigslist doesn’t permit sales of firearms) and its ads distinguish between sellers who are licensed dealers as opposed to private individuals just wanting to get rid of some guns.  Since private transfers in Washington State do not require approval from the NICS system, this means that any gun sold privately on this and other website might potentially wind up in the wrong hands.

bloom                The report argues that as many as 4,500 guns are purchased each year by individuals who would not be able to acquire a weapon if they had to submit to a background check.  The report then details an example in which an individual convicted of multiple felonies, including domestic violence assault and assault and battery of a police officer, posted a message on Armslist stating that he wanted to buy a certain kind of gun.  Although it was not possible to determine whether this particular person proceeded to acquire a weapon, there was nothing that would have necessarily prevented him from making contact with a seller and getting his hands on a gun.

This is hardly the first time that Bloomberg’s folks have issued a report showing the connection between gun violence and unregulated gun transfers.  In 2010 the Mayor’s Group issued “Trace The Guns” which showed the alarming number of guns originally purchased in southern states that ended up in northern cities like New York.  This report not only focused attention on the interstate movement of unregulated guns, but also heightened concerns about “straw sales” in which a qualified buyer would purchase guns from a dealer, pass a background check but then give or sell the guns to someone else.  To the extent that I-594 in Washington embodies legal constraints on private gun transactions of all kinds, this effort could become something of a template for extending state-level gun controls into other states as well.

Ironically, the vote is not only a test of Bloomberg’s strategy, but also puts him up against one of the gun lobby’s chief supporters, Alan Gottlieb, whose 2nd Amendment Foundation is headquartered in Bellevue, WA from where he organizes and directs mail-order campaigns, lawsuits and other activities to spread the gospel of the gun.  To counter I-594, Gottlieb filed his own ballot initiative, I-591, which prohibits any expansion of background checks in Washington unless a national expansion takes place which the state would be required to join.

I don’t necessarily see a connection between what gun-control activists really hope to achieve and the expansion of background checks to cover all private transactions of guns.  Why bother expanding background checks to rifles and shotguns when they are rarely used in acts of violence or other types of crimes?  Know what you get by requiring long gun transfers through NICS?  A bunch of pissed-off rifle and shotgun owners who might otherwise support background checks where it really counts; i.e., keeping handguns out of the wrong hands.


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