In the latest issue of National Review, I write about the lax enforcement of our gun laws and touch on a theme that is worth exploring a little more: Gun control is not about gun crime — gun control is about gun culture.
If we cared about keeping guns out of the hands of felons, we’d be locking up straw buyers. We’d be prosecuting prohibited “lie and try” buyers who falsify their ATF paperwork. And we’d be confiscating guns sold in retail transactions that were wrongly approved because of defects in the background-check system. But, for the most part, we don’t do much of any of that.
Instead of doing the hard work of enforcing the law on people committed to breaking it, we focus almost all of our efforts on the most law-abiding group of Americans there is: People who legally buy firearms from licensed firearms dealers, a group that, by definition, has a felony-conviction rate of approximately 0.0 percent. These are law-abiding people, but they also are, in no small part, the type of people who mash the cultural buttons of the big-city progressives who dominate the Democratic Party both culturally and financially. From that point of view, what matters is not that retail gun dealers and their clients are dangerous — which they certainly are not — but that they are icky.
That culture-war mentality produces a great deal of sloppy thinking and ignorant commentary. Consider the case of Gail Collins in Thursday’s New York Times. Collins is hopping mad about gun shows, about which she seems to know . . . not a whole lot. “Yeah,” she writes — really, “yeah” — “right now one easy way to buy a gun without having anyone check to see if you have a history of criminal convictions, mental illness or a domestic violence restraining order is to just plunk down some cash at a gun show.”
This is — and this part still matters! — not true.
There is no special legal exemption for gun shows, no matter how many times New York Times columnists insist there is. The laws that apply everywhere else in the world apply in the same way, to the same degree, to the same people, at gun shows. If you are a felon or other prohibited buyer, it is a serious federal crime to buy a gun at a gun show; in most states, including the allegedly Wild West state of Texas, it is a crime to sell a felon a firearm, at a gun show or anywhere else. If you are a licensed firearms dealer, then you have to run background checks at a gun show, just as you would if you were selling at your shop or anywhere else. If you live in a state in which background checks are required for private sales (New York, California, etc.), those rules apply at gun shows the same as anywhere else. Some gun-show operators mandate background checks on private sales even where they are not legally required. The worst that can be said of gun shows is that they provide a convenient venue for sales that could be made in precisely the same way, by and to the same people, anywhere else.
Because this is a culture-war issue rather than a crime-reduction issue, Collins apparently has not bothered thinking much about the most obvious and most relevant question: Are guns bought at gun shows a significant contributor to crime? Fortunately, we have a whole federal office — the Bureau of Justice Statistics — that keeps track of these things. Its finding? “Among prisoners who possessed a firearm during their offense, 0.8% obtained it at a gun show.”
Imagine me putting on my Sheriff Buford T. Justice accent: “Zero-point-eight percent!”
Now, given that only 20 percent of prisoners in the BJS survey were in possession of a firearm of any sort at the time of their offense, my English-major math puts those gun-show guns at the scene of 0.16 percent of those crimes. That number rounds down to squat.
When I hear Democrats protesting voter-ID laws, they habitually insist that “there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud.” That is true. But there is some voter fraud — there are people in jail for it, and people headed there for it — and we should take reasonable steps to prevent and discourage it, because the social effects of even a little bit of election fraud are very corrosive. There are lots of things that are not widespread that nonetheless deserve our attention. Are there people at gun shows profiting by intentionally providing criminals with weapons? Maybe, though gun shows aren’t really where the black-marketeers hang out their shingles. We do occasionally prosecute people acting as unlicensed commercial dealers (as opposed to occasional private sellers) at gun shows, which is appropriate. But, again, that offense is a crime whether those sales happen at a gun show, in a garage, or out of the trunk of a car — or at a gun shop, for that matter.
The same BJS study contains one of the least surprising findings in the literature: The vast majority of criminals — 90 percent — do not get their firearms from any sort of retail operation. The share that acquired them legally in a retail setting (sporting-goods store, pawnshop, etc.) is even smaller.
Collins goes on to spend five paragraphs excoriating Texas for its new “constitutional carry” law. I myself preferred the old concealed-carry regime, with the required classwork, shooting test, and background check. But what Collins does not mention is that this is not some new innovation unique to the redneck states — Texas now has the same law as radical, right-wing . . . Vermont, which has had constitutional carry for as long as we have had the Constitution. Texas joins Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming in this arrangement. Some of those states have relatively high rates of murder and other violent crimes (Alaska, Arkansas) — though not a single one of them has a murder rate as much as half that of the District of Columbia — while others (Maine, Vermont, Idaho) are among the safest states in the Union. The obvious conclusion is that whatever the important variable is in murder rates, it isn’t this.
Like many gun-controllers, Collins can’t be bothered with the facts or data: “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that eliminating the sale of semiautomatic rifles would make the country more . . . gun safe,” she writes. I hope for the sake of her bones that the limb is not too far up: As anybody who follows this issue knows, all “long guns” combined — meaning all shotguns and rifles, not just the semiautomatic ones — account for a tiny share of murders, and by tiny I mean fewer murders than are committed with bare hands or blunt objects. So-called assault rifles as a class are so rarely used in violent crimes that the feds don’t even bother to break them out statistically. But as near as we can tell, they account for around 2 percent of violent crimes, maybe less.
There are good reasons for that, having nothing to do with gun laws — it is easier to buy a long gun than it is to buy a handgun, but it is hard to stick an AK-47 down your pants or jam it into your glove box. You can go out and buy a .50-caliber Barrett semiautomatic rifle and do some real damage — if you are the kind of criminal who has $12,000 burning a hole in his pocket and a propensity for committing crimes in which it is convenient to use a 30-pound, five-foot-long rifle. As it turns out, that is not how most American criminals operate. But .50-caliber rifles are, for some reason, a target of the gun-control movement.
Instead of such exotic weapons, criminals generally use handguns. Traditionally, the most common kind of firearm to be used in a crime in the United States is whatever the most common kind of handgun is at that time. For a long time, it was .38-caliber revolvers; now, it is 9mm and .40-caliber semiautomatic pistols. Criminals don’t get them from gun shows — when they don’t steal them, they get them from their girlfriends. We can and should enforce straw-buyer laws, but, if we are going to do so, we should go into that knowing that we will be locking up a lot of young women and, almost certainly, a disproportionate share of them will be black or Hispanic and low-income.
Collins gives away the game, writing that a proposed gun-show regulation won’t actually do much, “but if it passes, we can at least savor the thought that the weapons lobby finally had a bad day.”
Giving people you hate a bad day is a pretty poor basis for public policy. Collins’s contribution here is useless to the policy debate, and as journalism, it is somewhere between incompetent and dishonest, dwelling in that no-man’s land of mediocrity that stretches across so many op-ed pages.
But that is really what Kulturkampf politics is all about: fortifying one’s own social status by exercising ritual domination over cultural rivals. That’s how you get punitive tax policies that don’t raise much revenue, “inclusiveness” policies based on exclusion, and gun-control proposals that don’t have anything to do with gun crime. It just feels good to exercise power over people you loathe or envy. That is the beginning and the end of it.
And, if that’s what gets your pistons pumping — well, then, you need Jesus, or at least therapy.
On the other hand, if you are interested in reducing violent crime, then you might want to consider policies that have at least a little something to do with violent criminals and the ways in which they actually arm themselves.