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Gun Control Redux

With the tragedy in Oregon, the red meat of gun control is back on the menu in the newsrooms and political offices everywhere. So I would like to address typical talking points that seem to be popular with the gun control crowd.

US has the highest number of guns in the hands of civilian population, and the highest level of gun violence among the developed countries. Stronger gun control laws would result in reduction of violence - why not adopt them?

First of all, specifically gun violence is not the right point to focus on. I personally don't care if I am stabbed to death or shot to death - in both cases, I am equally dead. We need to focus on violence, not just gun violence.

Homicide rates per country can be found here - click on the "Rate" table header to sort it. You will immediately see that homicide rates correlate far more with levels of poverty, and, even more specifically, with the rates of inequality, than with the gun ownership.

For example, Russia, which took a distinctively American path of development after perestroika, and created vast concentration of riches in small, tight elites of oligarchs and their immediate circles, has much higher homicide rates than the United States, despite draconian gun control laws. It is next to impossible to (legally) buy a gun in Russia.

Switzerland, on the other hand, has roughly the same gun control laws, and in many cases more lax laws than many US states, and the homicide rate which is an order of magnitude less than that in the US.

An aside: Swiss gun laws

Based on the Weapons Act, here is a quick comparison of gun control laws and practices between Switzerland and the US.

Buying a long gun

Switzerland

The buyer walks into the store, buys the gun. There is no background check.

US

Rules vary, but in State of Washington, one of the more liberal states when it comes to gun control, the buyer walks into the store, the dealer goes to the .gov website (NICS), and performs the background check. NICS can delay the transaction for up to 3 days if they need to take a closer look. The states can extend this period further, in particular, WA extends it to up to 10 days, and in some rare cases up to 60.

Buying a handgun

Switzerland

The buyer goes to the local government office, which performs the background check, and issues a license for acquisition. The license is presented to the dealer, which allows the customer to buy the gun.

US

State laws vary greatly, but in Washington, again, being one of the more liberal (in the sense of access to guns) states, the customer fills out the paperwork at the dealer, the dealer sends the paperwork to the local government, police does the background check (5-10 days, in some cases up to 60), and when the background check completes, the customer gets the gun.

If the customer already has a concealed carry license (so he or she already went through an extended background check), the dealer performs the NICS check as for the long gun.

Permit to carry a handgun

Switzerland

A person must go to a local government, and they use their discretion whether carrying a handgun is justified in this specific case. They also require training.

US

State laws vary greatly on this one. Some states (WA) are shall-issue, i.e. if the background check is completed and shows no disqualifier, the state must issue the license. Some states (TX, UT, a bunch more) require many hours of training. Some states leave it up to discretion of the local law enforcement agencies, and in some cases getting a carry permission is almost impossible (NY, NJ, etc). Incidentally, these are typically the locality with the highest levels of gun violence.

Personal firearms transfers

Switzerland

Person to person sales do not require a license.

US

Person to person sales between the residents of the same state are at the discretion of the state. Some state requires all firearms transfers to go through the dealers. Some don't.

Person to person transfers to residents of different states are regulated by the federal government, and must go through the FFL in the recipient's state.

So it is pretty safe to say that on average, Switzerland has more restricted gun laws than the US - certainly much more relaxed gun laws compared with NY, NJ, DC, or Chicago.

US is unique among the developed nations in that it has a very wide gap in incomes among its population - there are whole areas where a family might live on a mere $20 a day, $15 of which would be housing. These areas are incidentally where almost all of the violent crime is concentrated - if you correct for these places, you will find that rich neighborhoods have low levels of violence irrespective from the number of guns in them, and poor neighborhoods have high levels of violence, again, irrespective of the number of guns in them. What US has is simply a larger number of poor neighborhoods compared to other developed nations.

Now, you typically don't hear this from politicians, media, and gun control activists - including the social "scientists" at Harvard Injury Control Research Center. (Honestly, this alone should disqualify these hacks from being anywhere near Harvard.)

They do this for a reason - this would mean that the problem is complex, and does not have a trivial, easy to understand, and easy to sell to an average voter solution. They prefer to focus on "common sense" easy approaches - to make it appear as if they care, and at the same time to not rock the boat too much.

And speaking of "common sense"...

Why is gun community constantly rejecting common sense laws such as universal background checks, and assault weapon ban?

Quick answer - gun community does not reject laws where there is a good chance that the law might work. We reject laws which create barriers to gun ownership, but have absolutely no chance of reducing the violence.

"Assault Weapons Ban" is one such law. It regulates firearms based on (a) appearance, and (b) magazine capacity, while ignoring the fact that vast majority of crimes are perpetrated by firearms that it does not regulate, with the number of shots fired well beyond the capacity that it establishes as legal, and that the appearance of a firearm has nothing to do with its function, and by applying a few cosmetic modifications (such as removing a bayonet lug - can you PLEASE point one murder in living memory which was performed by an AR-15 bayonet?) an AR-15 or AK-47 can be made legal without limiting their ability to do harm.

For example, this is an AWB compliant gun:

And these three are not:

Can you spot the differences?

But this is not all.

AWB grandfathered hundreds of millions of existing high capacity magazines and "assault-style" firearms. In fact, so many were produced in the run-up to the ban itself, that the prices on grandfathered equipment actually DROPPED TO PRE-BAN LEVELS after the ban went into effect. So there were sufficient firearms in circulation to satisfy the meager needs of deranged lunatics for decades and more likely hundreds of years to come. Firearms and magazines don't spoil - I have 100+ years old Mosin-Nagant rifles in my collection which are every bit as lethal as they were in the streets of Stalingrad.

Of course, even if these items had not been grandfathered in, and if they could somehow - magically - have removed hundreds of millions of them already in circulation from the (black) market, modifying a magazine so that it would accept more ammunition is trivial. Of course it would be illegal, but shooting people is also highly illegal, so it is hard to expect mass murderers to be stopped by this little problem once the Rubicon had been crossed.

And it is important to re-emphasize that by its nature, AWB focused ONLY on firearms and magazines used in mass murders - but never in regular crime. Did you ever hear of a mugger brandishing an AK-47? Common criminals use regular handguns, to which AWB did not apply. Mass murders kill on average 50 people a year. This is out of total of 11000 firearms-related homicides. Among the causes of deaths, there are not many that claim fewer people per year - and none of them have ever warranted so much government intervention.

To put it in context, there are 30000 alcohol-induced deaths per year. 46000 drug related deaths. Yet we regulate alcohol and drugs far less than the black rifles.

Needless to say, studies upon studies found NO DIFFERENCE in violence levels due to AWB (you can read the DOJ study here). The law arbitrarily restricted shooters and collectors from buying a popular firearm, made politicians claim victory, AND MADE NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER on actual violence.

What kind of common sense is this?

Universal background checks is another example of "common sense" law which sounds very good on paper, yet appears to not have any effect in practice. We have a very interesting example of this right here, in the State of Washington. I-594 was enacted roughly a year ago with the lobbying campaign from Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. 9 months after the law took effect, this same organization claimed that we are "in the middle of gun-violence epidemic" to promote their next project - the tax on guns and ammunition sales in Seattle.

While we all appreciate the honesty of the anti-gun lobby admitting that the previous law had absolutely no effect on gun violence, one might ask - why? Why did THIS "common sense" legislation fail to show any results?

Unlike AWB which is spectacularly stupid on the surface, this one requires a more subtle look - and understanding of how guns bought and sold in this country.

Naively it all makes sense - dealers are required to do background check before selling a gun - why not require it of everyone? Yet here it is - 9 months after introduction - no effect. Why?

I have been a gun enthusiast, collector, and a dealer, for many years. While building my personal collection, I noticed that there are roughly 3 classes of people who buy guns.

First, the gun enthusiasts. These are the people who passionately love shooting or collecting.

They are the ones responsible for 90%+ of all transactions. For example, half of all guns in my store in the last 9 months were bought by people who bought more than one gun - just during these 9 months. That's just from one store and in less than year. Many bought 3, 4, or 5 guns. Some bought more than ten.

These people buy a lot, trade a lot, and used to buy a lot through private transactions. They are comfortable around firearms, know what to look for, and when they engage in person-to-person transactions, they typically do this in their own circles, which are built around online communities such as waguns.org, seattleguns.net, and the like.

These people are extremely law-abiding. They go through many background checks per year, they get fingerprinted regularly for their concealed carry licenses (which they call a "good guy card"), and they are far, far, far "cleaner" in the law enforcement sense than the general population - yes, this means you, the non-gun-owners. For example, there are no drunk drivers among them, domestic abusers, etc. Many a background check in their past have established this beyond any reasonable doubt. Have you ever heard about a violent crime perpetrated by a gun collector? Me neither.

These are also the people who are hurt the most by the universal background checks measures. The cheapest transfer fee in Seattle area is $25. Want to swap your Mosin for a friend's Mauser? That would be $50 (background checks for you and your friend) - even though the combined value of the guns in this swap is $250.

The second cohort of gun buyers are once-in-a-lifetime purchasers who buy guns for self-defense.

These folks typically do not know much about guns, or the legal process required to obtain one. Even if the person-to-person gun transactions were legal (as they were in pre-2015 WA), they typically don't know that - and even if they did, they wouldn't know where to find a seller, and wouldn't consider meeting a person with a gun in a dark parking lot a particularly enticing proposition. Nor do they know how to tell a good gun from a broken one, which can explode in their hands. Vast majority of them prefer going through a dealer anyway.

Incidentally, these are the people that most often fail the background checks. A person may be unaware that prior treatments for mental disorder, drunk driving convictions, or the like disqualify someone from buying a gun. They show up at the dealer, submit their applications, and get turned down. This doesn't happen often by any means - our store gets one denial, sometimes - infrequently - two - per quarter. We also turn down similar number of people because they identify disqualifying questions on a background transfer form before it is submitted. This is from approximately 400 transfers per quarter that go through without a hitch.

This is why the background checks at a federal dealer level work - they prevent people with mental health issues from owning a gun - but the universal background checks do nothing.

Finally, there are criminals. These people don't go for their guns to the federally licensed gun stores - universal background checks or no. They get their gun through "social" (criminal) networks, stealing, straw purchases, and the like. If you think that they will be deterred by I-594, there is a bridge in Brooklyn that I would love to sell you!

So here we go - another "common sense" law that falls completely apart when the actual data is examined. Should there really be any surprise that the gun community does not support it?

By the way, the laws targeting the firearms all have one distinct property. They are forced by the majority of non-gun owners who do not understand how guns work on the democratically helpless minority of the gun owners. Can you find other examples in American history when a majority arbitrarily restricted minority rights? Do you feel proud of these examples?

Epidemic of violence

Despite what the gun control crowd would have you believe, we do not live in the ruins of Stalingrad. Even though the statistics at the national level are not amazing, if you exclude criminal-on-criminal violence, the numbers would look very differently. For example, Chicago Tribune article from 2012, "Tale of two cities: Chicago murder rate spikes, New York falls", quotes Chicago Police Commissioner McCarthy who said that eighty percent of the homicides were gang-related.

So excluding a few really bad places, the rest of the US actually is not that dramatically different from the rest of the developed world.

Of course, you can try to solve Seattle's East African gangs violence problem by making it difficult to buy guns in Bellevue, but for reasons that should by now be quite obvious this is very unlikely to work.

Which brings up to the next argument...

Sure the criminals don't follow the law. But initially all gun are legally purchased. If we restrict the new guns coming into the market, eventually the criminals will feel the squeeze.

This "intuitive" claim assumes that reducing the number of guns going to the civilian market by, say, 50% would reduce the supply to the criminals by a similar amount. This, of course, is extremely unlikely and calls for at least a demonstration based on data. Looking over the southern border to Mexico, or over the Sarah Palin's backyard to Russia we are not at all observing this trend.

Unlike the lawful gun owners, criminals depend on guns for survival. They will be the last that give them up - as is observed in pretty much the rest of the world. With at most 11000 guns (0.004% of US total firearms!) required to perpetrate country's 11000 yearly murders, it will take a very, very long time until the nation's gun ownership is reduced enough for this market to feel a squeeze. Let me try it again - a 100 year supply for the criminal market is completely covered by LESS THAN HALF A PERCENT of all the firearms in the US civilian market.

Seriously, are there people here who think that removing 99% of guns from the US is possible? Or are they simply numerically challenged?

But if it only saves one life, it is still worth it

Let me ask this question differently. Alcohol claims 3 times as many lives as guns. Should we be re-instituting the Prohibition? And if not, why not?

In his memoir, Bill Clinton wrote that Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections because of the AWB. Other Democrats have stated that the AWB may have cost Al Gore the 2000 presidential election.

It will take over a hundred years for US gun violence to catch up with the body count of Iraq war. I will just leave it at that.