Reality check on gun control


The great challenge of gun control advocates is convincing enough people, or their representatives in Congress, that the next policy will do the trick and put a giant dent in gun violence. Unfortunately, most of the advocated proposals have three issues to overcome:

  1. They typically target legal activity. The overwhelming number of gun owners follow federal and state laws. Criminals do not. New regulations on gun ownership would burden lawful owners while doing little to combat crime.
  2. The proposals themselves would have minimal, if any, impact on gun violence.
  3. The new ideas don’t address the problem of enforcement, particularly as it relates to background checks.

The three most significant policies gun control advocates hope to pass are the “assault weapons” ban, a limit on magazine capacity, and background checks for any sale or transfer that falls outside the already required law for such purchases.

The ban on scary-looking rifles is all theater. The reality is, more people are murdered every year by someone with a knife or their bare hands. No data or research shows that limiting the capacity of magazines has any sizable effect on gun violence. The same goes for “assault weapons” that incorrectly get labeled as “weapons of war” or “military weapons.” More than any other firearm, handguns are used in the majority of crimes in the United States.

As for background checks on private sales, advocates cite the high approval such policies get in public opinion polls. Still, it’s another idea that does little to stop criminals from committing crimes. The Chicago Tribune reviewed 19 mass shootings going back to 2012 and found that in only one did the perpetrator obtain the firearm through a private transaction. All the other perpetrators passed a federal background check.

Studies about universal background checks have shown little impact on crime. A study by researchers at the University of California, Davis and Johns Hopkins examined California’s misdemeanor violence prohibition and comprehensive background check policies and concluded they “were not associated with changes in firearm homicides in California.”

Enforcement is an important question. A 2013 federal bill carved out exceptions for transfers and sales between family and friends. The most recent House legislation requiring background checks on all sales and transfers has minimal but stringent exceptions, including loans or gifts, but only for family members.

When announcing a slew of executive actions on guns on April 7, President Joe Biden talked about the supposed “epidemic” of gun violence but mostly elided suicide, a crucial omission. Despite the increasing availability of firearms and many states loosening restrictions on carrying a handgun, gun-related homicides have fallen since 2006. Suicides committed with a gun have increased.

Biden only mentioned suicide when discussing so-called red flag laws, which enable someone’s firearm to be temporarily confiscated by court order, that he wants to implement at the federal level. How he plans to carry out such a policy remains to be seen. As for state red flag laws, Biden said, “States that have red flag laws have seen and — seen a reduction in the number of suicides in their states.” That statement doesn’t line up with the facts. Connecticut passed its red flag law in 1999, California in 2014, Washington in 2016, and Oregon in 2017. All of those states have a higher suicide rate than when they put red flag laws into place.

So, what is there to do for those who want to increase gun safety without trampling on the Second Amendment?

First, start with the expanded background checks. If Congress wants to mandate it for private sales, why not allow the general public to access the NICS database to perform a background check? Currently, it is only available to law enforcement agencies and federally licensed firearms dealers. Make it easier for private sellers to register to use it too, once they have provided identification and passed background checks. The FBI can charge reasonable fees to access the database for every search; the buyer and seller can negotiate who covers the cost. Just as a licensed dealer is required, the seller must send Form 4473 to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives with a copy of the buyer’s identification.

Second, prosecute straw purchasers with more vigor. That raises a problem. Currently, there are no federal laws addressing straw purchases directly. The ATF and Justice Department are limited to investigating and prosecuting charges related to giving false statements on a federal form.

Line 21a of Form 4473 asks, “Are you the actual transferee/buyer of the firearm(s) listed on this form and any continuation sheet(s) (ATF Form 5300.9A)?” If a person answers affirmatively despite knowing he’s going to give the gun over to a friend who couldn’t pass a background check, that is a federal offense. However, it carries minimal punishment. For example, a case of straw purchasing in Virginia netted two people restricted from owning firearms (they were convicted felons) 27 to 48 months in federal prison. The actual straw purchasers received only 45 days and home confinement. The lack of stringent penalties minimizes the risk. After all, it’s easier to convince someone to steal a pack of gum than to rob a bank.

Richard Marianos, a professor at Georgetown University and 27-year veteran of the ATF, including most recently as assistant director in the Office of Public and Governmental Affairs, told the Washington Examiner there must be more focus on straw purchases and the federally licensed firearms dealers that openly allow straw purchases, or at least look the other way when they know it’s going on.

“One way would be to allow agents, with reasonable suspicion — not probable cause — to enter a gun shop and ask to see their records,” Marianos said.

Marianos outlined three points critical to the investigation and successful prosecution of straw purchasers:

  1. Resources. The ATF annual budget is a mere $1.4 billion out of nearly $5 trillion, which is lower than the Secret Service budget.
  2. Planning. A new strategy is needed to deal with gun violence that includes input not only from gun control advocates but also Second Amendment proponents.
  3. Personnel. The ATF currently employs under 1,800 special agents across the country. By comparison, the Secret Service has 3,200 special agents.

“Over 80% of the guns used in violent crimes are attributed to straw purchases,” Marianos said.

Another problem for the ATF: Whenever agents want to trace a gun used in a crime back to the source of the sale, they must do a hand search through paper records at the bureau’s tracing center in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups have successfully lobbied against allowing the ATF to digitize documents and create a centralized database over the unfounded fears it creates a de facto gun registration database.

It is not impossible to come up with real, common sense solutions to address gun violence. For Democrats, it means moving beyond new bans and a willingness to increase federal law enforcement capabilities at a time when activists are calling for defunding the police. For conservatives, it means going beyond “no” to “no, but …” with their own ideas to get violent criminals and illegal guns off the streets.

Jay Caruso is managing editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.

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