Seven things you're not hearing about guns in America
Photo: Gosford Anglican Church in Australia's Central Coast made waves in America and on social media after the Valentine's Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
By TATIANA PROPHET
Every time a mass shooting terrorizes our national psyche, we turn to social media to vent our anger that we haven’t already stopped these real-life horror films from happening.
We are caught in a loop of memes, whistles and signals. Gun rights advocates immediately send thoughts and prayers to the victims, sentiments which gun reform advocates see as insincere. Gun-rights advocates in turn admonish their gun-averse friends (if they have any) for “politicizing” tragedy -- and too soon. “Anti-gun” people, in turn, pre-emptively shush the “pro-gun” people for sending thoughts and prayers by sarcastically sending thoughts and prayers (instead of what they see as desperately needed gun control). It’s become so predictable that instead of “thoughts/prayers,” we should just number the memes, and call them out: “Gun Meme No. 4.”
I have closely watched both sides of the gun debate. I once owned a semi-automatic 9 mm Smith and Wesson handgun that I practiced with at the range, before I sold it during hard times. When I bought it, I was concerned about a long-term stalker, and well aware that you can’t put someone in jail before they commit a crime. Later, I became disgusted with the plethora of guns in our society and the inability of our legislators to pass even the simplest of fixes to our gun laws. We seem to be stuck between the rock of the 2nd Amendment, and the hard place of ignoring every other reason people are shooting into a crowd besides guns (and there are a lot of them).
After the 2016 election, I began to look at both sides of every issue. And I saw that the memes and the outrage are not helping us find solutions. I saw that we would all have much better arguments – and be able to make actual change – if we did some homework on the topic.
That’s why I started Back to Facts. Not to claim a monopoly on the truth; but to go after a more complete picture by facing and conquering my own bias.
When it comes to guns in America, few topics are more complex. This is because the situation is different in every state. In spite of a National Background Check System maintained by the FBI, it’s astounding how different the gun situation is around the country. It takes a national expert to sort things out. Otherwise we will forever be comparing apples to oranges or conveying incomplete information. Start with these facts next time you get into a debate.
1. Why do so many mass killers pass background checks?
Call it the information loophole. In a glaring example, Dylann Roof, the Charleston church killer, would have failed a background check if his confession to drug possession had been reported to the FBI. The Texas church shooter’s domestic violence history would have also prevented him from buying a weapon. But it wasn’t reported by the Air Force. The man who shot Gabrielle Giffords and killed children passed a background check in spite of exhibiting troubling behavior in college. Because of backlogs and privacy concerns, in 2016 there were 21 states that had only 80 percent of the final outcome of all felony arrests actually recorded in their databases, according to a study funded by the Justice Department. Some states had a backlog of one year for the entry of case data into their systems. Additionally, mental health records are reported by a patchwork of providers and agencies to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System maintained by the FBI. According to the Washington Post, the government funded a four-year effort beginning in 2008 to try to estimate how many records existed of people who should be barred under federal law from buying a gun but aren't flagged in the FBI system. “That effort was abandoned in 2012 because of the cost,” wrote reporter Devlin Barrett in November 2017. (Barrett came up as a reporter who was on a first-name basis with FBI agent Peter Stzrok, who was leading the Clinton e-mail criminal investigation).
The missing information from the background check database is the biggest spin of omission by the media and the gun-reform movement. NRA CEO Wayne La Pierre recently said at a conservative summit:
“The NRA has fought for 20 years to put the records of those adjudicated mentally incompetent in to the national instant checks system. And until the politicians demand that they are submitted, killers who are legally prohibited from owning firearms will walk into gun stores and pass every background check they take.”
We’ll get to La Pierre’s spin of omission down below.
2. Are all gun dealers required to conduct background checks?
Yes, even at gun shows. You must have a license, even if you don’t own a physical store, to be a professional gun seller, aka a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL). Federal law requires that all persons in the United States “engaged in the business of dealing in firearms” be licensed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). The penalty for being a gun dealer without a license is up to five years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. To call you a dealer, courts look at whether you repetitively sell firearms or are looking to make a profit. Courts have ruled against sellers with as few as two gun transactions. An FFL is required to conduct an instant background check with every single person who buys a gun.
3. Who runs the instant background check system?
The FBI. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, is headquartered in Clarksburg, West Virginia. It came about as a response to the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. James Brady, Reagan’s press secretary, was permanently disabled when he was shot in the head with a .22-caliber short-barreled revolver by John Hinckley Jr. The NICS system went into effect in 1998. It was developed in cooperation with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, plus state and local governments. After a buyer fills out a form 4473, the gun store/dealer can either call NICS, or request the background check electronically. Some states have “points of contact” that manage the background checks using NICS information. On average, the phone check takes about eight minutes. The e-check takes less than two minutes. This was by design to allow law-abiding citizens quick access to arms if they should need them. Sometimes there can be a delay if the instant check is inconclusive. The 20-year-old who wrote about being able to buy an AR-15 in five minutes never actually submitted the paperwork (which he said was five pages) for a background check. But it’s probably safe to say he would have passed. It’s not that he may have been a mass murderer, but either way, the database is woefully incomplete (see point 1).
4. What is the gun-show loophole?
The “gun-show” loophole is misnamed. To be sure, gun shows are a problem. They are places where criminals can get guns. But a firearms dealer must still conduct a background check even if they are selling at a gun show (see this CNN article).
Hobbyists and “private sellers” are the ones who are not required to conduct background checks (except 19 states that now have laws requiring background checks for private sales). Often, there are fewer private sellers than dealers at a gun show. The loophole is a “private seller” loophole, and it varies from state to state.
5. Are there a lot of private gun sales?
Yes. Online “sales” with private sellers make for one absolutely gaping loophole, bringing buyers and sellers together like Craigslist. There are currently about 4,000 web sites devoted to buying and selling firearms. As long as they don’t travel across state lines, their transaction is considered a private sale. According to this link, states that do require background checks for private sales actually have fewer “online” sales without them. In other words, the laws make a difference. The problem of private gun sales is the biggest spin of omission by the National Rifle Association.
6. Are people with a history of mental problems barred from owning guns?
Yes, federal law prohibits anyone from buying or owning a gun who has been adjudicated as mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed. At this point, records of someone being involuntarily committed are supposed to stay in the database indefinitely. But again, the information being reported to the FBI is inadequate. Sadly, Nikolas Cruz was evaluated in 2016 for possible detainment under Florida’s Baker Act, which allows authorities to hold individuals against their will for 72 hours. But he was never committed.
And no, Donald Trump did not enable the mentally ill to buy guns. There was a regulation put in place by an executive order under President Obama that stated that if you are receiving disability social security benefits and you have designated a family member, friend or professional to manage your finances, you may not own a gun. The ACLU was opposed to this rule (but they were also opposed to barring neo Nazis from marching in Charlottesville).
After a man shot people in Santa Barbara, Calif., the state passed a so-called “red-flag” law that allows family and law enforcement to ask a judge to temporarily bar a person from buying a gun due to being a danger to self or others. This has been shown by a recent study to prevent suicides.
7. Why has the AR-15 become so widely used in mass shootings?
There is no doubt the AR-15 has become wildly popular, with both law-abiding gun owners and violent criminals. It looks like a military-issued M16 except it is not capable of automatic (burst) fire. For a rifle, it’s small and lightweight. The ammunition is .223 inches in diameter, similar to a .22-caliber bullet in diameter but not in length. The ammo is center-fired (unlike the rim-fired .22 bullet).
Gun owners will tell you it’s not an assault rifle, that the term “assault weapon” is a creation of people who don’t like or don’t own guns. So what is it? It is semi-automatic, meaning you can squeeze the trigger multiple times without cocking the gun again. One squeeze, one bullet. It was banned from 1994 to 2004 under the assault weapons ban. That ban’s effect on violent crime was ruled inconclusive in a series of studies.
Believe it or not, there was a time when handguns were considered more dangerous, which is why after John Hinckley Jr. shot President Reagan with a short-barrel Saturday Night Special .22 caliber revolver, the law changed so that you had to be 21 to purchase a handgun. But not a long rifle.
Law-abiding gun owners have told me they really like the AR-15 because apparently it is fun to use in target practice, and obviously it can be a weapon of defense should it be needed. A big reason they feel it might be needed would be in the event of an uprising or government overreach. As we all know, most who don’t own guns simply can’t understand how an otherwise logical person would think they could ever go up against a modern military, even if they were part of a “well-regulated militia.”
Yet they do believe it, in spite of the government essentially murdering David Koresh and his disciples at their Waco, Texas, compound in 1994, and other incidents. What most of us don’t think about is the prospect of a mass uprising. If you think about 300 million guns in this country, and a very large portion of gun owners defying the government, well then you have a crowd. And an angry crowd is a very scary thing. And armed, angry crowd is even scarier. This is obviously why people who don’t like guns want to ban guns. And why people who like guns want to have the most efficient, deadliest kind they can own. And the gun owners who are not dangerous want to keep their right to train with these weapons. It’s a proverbial stalemate if there ever was one.
All of this said, there are so many things that we can do to prevent dangerous people from getting guns and ammunition. Both sides need to admit their spins of omission, and make this issue a priority.
Perhaps if we really know what we are talking about, we can reframe the debate and actually make our teenagers proud.