Thursday, August 10, 2017

Blueprint For America: Guns

With thanks to Warner Bros. and Chuck Jones

Guns. Americans love the damned things. With the exception of rom-coms and most kid flicks, at least one of 'em will show up in a movie somewhere, usually accompanied either by a car chase or a snappy catchphrase.

The thing is, I know there are people out there who may read this who are gun rights supporters. I’m well aware that the vast majority of gun rights supporters are rational, reasonable people who would never even consider something as brutal as the crime that Ron Lee Haskell perpetrated in Houston in 2014, or Adam Lanza committed in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary. However, it is a common thread among the gun rights crowd that gun control will not work, because criminals will get guns anyway, and if you take the guns away from the good guys then there’s going to be a massive slaughter and life will look like a Tarentino movie.

I disagree, and I started doing some research to find data to support my position that we need gun control to save lives by preventing mass shooting events and crimes of passion. After all, I am a liberal, and I don’t like guns, and I fail to see the rational need to have a weapon capable of absolutely vaporizing a duck and trying to claim it’s for hunting, and I DEFINITELY don’t see a reason to bring something like that to Chipotle or Target.

What I found instead was far more disturbing.

Apparently, people have less to fear from a bad guy with a gun than they do themselves. According to the Centers for Disease Control, from 2001 to 2015 (the last year for which there are openly published data) the majority of firearms-related deaths came from suicides. Of the 476,342 gun deaths in this country during that time, 280,456 (a shade under 59%) of them were the result of suicides. 2015 was the worst year in terms of absolute numbers, with 22,018 of 36,252 of the total firearms-related deaths being self-inflicted, while 2014 was the worst for percentages (63.66%)1.

In contrast, there were 177,125 homicides committed with a firearms during that time, or 37.18% of all gun deaths.

Think about this for a second, and see if you spot the irony. Gun rights advocates are very vocal about the need for guns to protect themselves against the “bad guys with guns”, and it turns out that the bad guys with guns are, more often than not ... drum roll, please ... themselves.

Conversely, a favorite argument of the left is that we need stricter gun regulations to prevents deaths by accidental discharge. However, the statistics show that this is actually not that big a problem. For the same period (2001 - 2015), there were 9,333 deaths labeled as “Unintentional” by the CDC, or 1.96% of all gun deaths -- and 0.00207% of the population as a whole (average from 2001 - 2015).

I do not intend to discount these deaths in any way. They are tragic, and could have easily been avoided if it wasn’t for the NRA and their ilk. However, it would be a mistake to use accidental death as a rallying cry, because gun rights advocates and other members of the far right will simply trivialize the number, as evidenced by this passage from
"According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), gang homicides accounted for roughly 8,900 of 11,100 gun murders in both 2010 and 2011. That means that there were just 2,200 non gang-related firearm murders in both years in a country of over 300 million people and 250 million guns."
Where to begin.

First, I found a bunch of web sites -- conservative ones, all -- that had this precise language, which leads me to believe that the article itself was part of a propaganda effort. This was further bolstered by the following attributes for these articles:
  • There was no byline.
  • The date/time stamps for all of them were within seconds of each other.
  • In most cases the entire article was identical, right down to the typos (a double period at the end of a sentence, for example). There were a few that tried to tweak things to make it their own, but this was usually in the form of a slight change in wording (changing "According to the FBI, almost four in ten homicides are classified as unknown" to "Almost four in ten homicides are classified as unknown, according to the FBI," for example).
Second, an updated edition of this article included the following footnote: "(Note: An early edition incorrectly quoted that 80% of non-suicide homicide gun deaths were gang-related. The true number is unknown as a large percentage of homicides are not categorized whatsoever.)" This 80% number was the source of the 8,900 claim made above.

In the context of the larger issue, though, whether or not it’s gang-related is kind of irrelevant. They are still people, and they are still getting killed. Yes, gang activity contributes to the flow of illegal firearms. Yes, if gangs were brought under control, there would fewer incidents of gun violence. I get all that. The conservative viewpoint is that we need to beef up enforcement against the gangs. Lock ‘em up, and that will serve as a deterrent. However, seeing as that has worked so well in the past, and as much as I am tempted to go off on a tangent about this, that will have to be reserved for the chapter on criminal justice. Moving right along ...

The thing that struck me about the conservative editorial mentioned above is that the author managed to whittle the number of homicides that, I don’t know, really matter, or something, down to 2,200 ... and then completely failed to mention anything substantive about this statistic, preferring instead to complain about how gun laws were incorrectly targeted.

I suppose it makes sense for gun nuts to complain about someone else’s aim.

Anyway, getting back to the conservative point that "we don’t need more gun regulations, what we need to do get rid of the gangs." First off, it’s not an either/or proposition. They are two completely separate issues, that need to be tackled individually.

Second, and more importantly, there is the issue of people like Ron Lee Haskell and Adam Lanza being able to get pretty much whatever they want that would increase killing power. Haskell had already run afoul of the law and had a restraining order against him, and there was a history of domestic violence, so how in the hell did he get a gun to begin with? I mean, one look at this guy’s record would be all it took for a gun seller to be able to say, “Y’know, I wouldn't trust this guy with a burnt out match”.

Assuming, of course, that anyone bothered to look in the first place. After all, if he had purchased the gun in Colorado before July 1, 2013, there would not have even been a cursory background check. In Colorado (where Haskell had been living with his wife and four children prior to the split and his moving to California), a state law requiring a background check at the gun purchaser's expense did not take effect until July 1, 2013; prior to that, I think you could get an AR15 out of a vending machine2.

Thirdly, a favorite tactic of the gun rights people is to dismiss any proposed gun control legislation, no matter how minor or reasonable, by proving that it will not be absolutely, perfectly, 100% effective in all situations. This ain’t exactly setting the bar very high, considering that there has been no legislation in the history of the world that has been effective in 100% of the cases. A perfect example is the case of a gun manufacturer that created an electronic trigger lock that would only allow the gun to be fired if it was within a few inches of a special watch to which it was digitally paired.


The uproar that resulted from this was astounding. A gun dealer in Maryland started offering these things for sale, and within hours was receiving death threats from gun nuts who were claiming that this violated their Second Amendment rights. It got so bad, he was forced to pull them from his shelves out of fear for his safety.

I got into a debate with a guy on this one a few years back, and he actually tried to make the case that a digital trigger lock like this was a bad idea because, if the hand with the watch got blown off and the watch was damaged or destroyed as a result, you wouldn't be able to fire the gun with the other hand. To which I replied, a) what are you doing in a situation where your hand is going to be blown off in the first place, and 2) if that does happen, you've got more important things to do with your free hand, like applying a tourniquet so you don't bleed to death.

This is the level of discourse I have come to expect from the gun rights crowd.

So now that we know what the lay of the land is, the question becomes: what do we do about it? I have a few thoughts ...

First and foremost, everybody on either side of the gun debate can probably agree that we will probably get the most bang for the buck (pardon the pun) if efforts are focused on suicides by firearm. The problem here is that it is actually quite rare for someone to go purchase a gun with the express intention of killing themselves. Usually what happens is that there is a confluence of events:
  • A history of mental health issues, such as depression, bipolar disorder, etc. that can negatively impact an individual's judgement.
  • Some kind of trigger (a death of a loved one, loss of a job, something like that).
  • Easy access to an existing firearm (having one in the nightstand, for example).
If all of these things come together it creates a fertile ground for thoughts of suicide. That being said, the solution to the gun problem in this country actually extends well beyond gun control laws, touching on health care policy, interstate commerce, and the Tenth Amendment.

A common rallying cry from conservatives concerning guns, especially after mass shooting events, is that "it's a mental health problem." On its face this statement is correct; the problem is that gun rights activists try to expand the definition of this to mean "it's only a mental health problem." In the case of suicides, the mental health issue does come more to the forefront. If we expanded mental health coverage -- the Affordable Care Act attempted to address this, much to the chagrin of many conservatives in Congress -- then it's possible that fewer people would be driven to suicide in the first place.

However, that does not mean that we can simply beef up mental health coverage in insurance plans, then briskly walk away, whistling and patting ourselves no the back for a job well done. We also need to have sensible gun control legislation in place. In order for it to be effective, it must address the following points:
  • Making it easier for sellers to run a background check, even in the case of a private sale.
  • Expanding background checks in the first place to include private sales and gun shows.
  • Reducing the number of military and military-style weapons released into the wild.
  • Limit magazine capacities in sales to the general public.
  • Eliminate reciprocity.
So let's go through these one at a time.

Make it easier for sellers to run a background check.
Running the actual background check is fairly easy using the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The problem is that, in order to use this system, one must be a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL). This pretty much eliminates private sellers from being able to use this.

While it would be fairly easy to open up the NICS for use by the general public, the question of privacy prevents a simple "let's just make a public portal" solution. We must come up with a way to verify that a NICS check is being used for a firearms transfer and not just because Sally Smith is looking for dirt on her ex-husband to use in the custody hearing. One possible solution is to require that anyone who does not have a FFL number to call an 800 number, and to require that both the seller and buyer be present. Obviously, there are kinks and details to work out so that privacy can be protected; this is just spitballing.

Expand background checks to include private sales and gun shows.
The gun show problem is not a technical one, it is purely political. All that needs to happen is a) require that anyone selling firearms have a valid FFL number, and b) require a NICS check over the internet, which can return results instantaneously.

Reducing the number of military and military-style weapons.
This one is a little tougher, in that it requires some groundwork. First, what is the definition of a "military-style" firearm? Is it limited to military weapons that have had fully automatic operation disabled, or can it be expanded to include firearms that are modeled after military-grade weapons but do not have full-auto capability at all?

Second, and more difficult, is getting around the belief that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to own a firearm.

It does not.

The Second Amendment, in full, states that "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." In the majority decision in District of Columbia et al v. Heller (2008), Justice Antonin Scalia pontificated for a page and a half, parsing the meanings of the words "keep" and "bear." In neither case is ownership -- the ability to transfer title -- mentioned.

Not to get too far into the weeds with this (the Second Amendment, and arguments that it is no longer relevant, could fill an entire chapter -- and just might), but as the legal framework is defined now an individual has no more right to own a firearm than they do to own the license plates on their car. They "keep" the plates (have them in their possession), they "bear" the plates (control their use, i. e. putting them on their car), but they do not "own" the plates ... that honor goes to the state in which the vehicle is registered.

Limiting magazine capacities.
This provision is easier to implement than the reduction of military-style firearms in that it does not impede anyone's ability to own any given firearm, it only limits the number of rounds that can be fired before reloading.

Eliminate reciprocity.
This one is going to be extremely difficult in that it creates a Constitutional question regarding both the Tenth Amendment ("The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.") and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The National Rifle Association backed -- vigorously -- the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act, introduced in January of 2017 by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC 8); it has yet to progress beyond committee. The general thrust of this act is that, if someone has a valid concealed carry permit from Texas then they should be allowed concealed carry in all states ... even states where he or she might not meet the requirements for concealed carry were they a resident of that state.

The idea that what's allowable in one state is allowable in all states is the underlying principle behind Supreme Court cases such as Loving v. Virginia (which nullified state laws against interracial marriage) and Obergefell v. Hodges (which nullified laws against same-sex marriage and required that a marriage solemnized in one state must be recognized in all states). Unfortunately for supporters of gun control, this means that the same Constitutional logic must be applied.

This also means that, if there is going to be any meaningful progress on gun control, it must happen at the Federal level.

Of course, the key obstacle to implementing one or all of these provisions is the National Rifle Association ... one of the largest and most powerful lobbying groups in Washington. And in order to defang the NRA, we would need to address campaign finance, lobbying reform, and so many other aspects of governance ... which are far too convoluted to go into here. Trust me, though ... we will, in another chapter.

I gotta lie down.

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1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2015 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released December, 2016. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2015, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at on Aug 9, 2017 2:32:10 PM
The following ICD-10 Codes were used to filter the CDC data set:
  • U01.4 (Terrorism involving firearms)
  • W32 (Handgun discharge)
  • W33 (Rifle, shotgun and larger firearm discharge)
  • W34 (Discharge from other and unspecified firearms)
  • X72 (Intentional self-harm by handgun discharge)
  • X73 (Intentional self-harm by rifle, shotgun and larger firearm discharge)
  • X74 (Intentional self-harm by other and unspecified firearm discharge)
  • X93 (Assault by handgun discharge)
  • X94 (Assault by rifle, shotgun and larger firearm discharge)
  • X95 (Assault by other and unspecified firearm discharge)
  • Y22 (Handgun discharge, undetermined intent)
  • Y23 (Rifle, shotgun and larger firearm discharge, undetermined intent)
  • Y24 (Other and unspecified firearm discharge, undetermined intent)
  • Y35.0 (Legal intervention involving firearm discharge)
Population figures for 2010-2015 are April 1 Census counts. The population figures for years 2001 - 2009, other than the infant age groups, are bridged-race estimates of the July 1 resident population, from the revised intercensal county-level 2000 - 2009 series released by NCHS on October 26, 2012. Population figures for 2000 are April 1 Census counts. Population figures for 1999 are from the 1990-1999 intercensal series of July 1 estimates. Note: Rates and population figures for years 2001 - 2009 differ slightly from previously published reports, due to use of the population estimates which were available at the time of release.

2Just in case some right-winger gets his or her panties in a twist and accuses me of spreading misinformation, I will state categorically that, to the best of my knowledge, you could never buy an AR15 out of a vending machine in Colorado. However, you could get one free from Pep Boys if you bought a complete set of tires with the road hazard warranty.

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