About a year ago I debated Ladd Everitt from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a pro-gun control advocacy group that “seeks to secure freedom from gun violence through research, strategic engagement and effective policy advocacy.”
Ladd, the organization’s Director of Communications, and I debated a range of issues: our thoughts on concealed carry, how the 2nd Amendment defines and relates to self-defense outside the home, what the founding fathers and framers thought about gun ownership, among others.
Given that it was a civil but spirited debate that we both enjoyed, I thought I’d do it again. However, this time I decided to pick one specific issue – universal background checks – and explore that in greater detail.
Also, instead of debate format, where I would supply my own rebuttals to his answers, I decided to just ask tough and detailed questions at the outset. I did this because I wanted YOU – the readers – to become more involved in the conversation. Last time, I felt that my rebuttals precluded or dissuaded more readers from participating.
So, this time it’s all on you. I hope you’re up for the challenge, because as you’ll see Ladd is a skilled debater and rhetorician (If you need assistance or material, feel free to use the Guns.com search button. Search for articles on any topic, you’ll find plenty of useful and relevant information.)
1. Why do you support universal background checks?
LE: Because it presents a direct threat to my family and community when dangerous individuals (i.e., convicted felons, domestic abusers, substance abusers, dangerously mentally ill individuals, etc.) are allowed to purchase firearms without any screening. And we know that criminals get their guns through private sales. One 2004 survey of a nationally representative sample of state prison inmates identified those who were incarcerated for crimes committed with handguns. Only 9.9% of these offenders reported that they acquired their handgun by stealing it. Nearly 80% acquired their handguns through a transaction with unlicensed private sellers [Source: Webster DW, Vernick JS, McGinty EE, Alcorn T., “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals Through Effective Firearm Sales Laws,” pp. 109-122 in “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis,” Daniel W. Webster and Jon S. Vernick, Eds. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013].
It’s ridiculous that we live in an Information Age in which 90% of instant computer background checks are completed in a matter of minutes and yet we still allow private sellers to transfer firearms without conducting these checks and maintaining records. There isn’t a law-abiding citizen in America who has anything to fear from a background check. And to those who protest that a background check is an “inconvenience,” I would reply that my basic, inalienable rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” trump your desire to avoid an inconsequential hassle.
2. Why should law-abiding gun owners support UBCs?
LE: I rather like how Montana Senator Jon Tester explained it on the floor of the Senate on April 15, 2013:
What Senators Manchin and Toomey are trying to do with this amendment is trying to make the Second Amendment stronger for the people who are law-abiding gun owners, but yet trying to keep guns out of the hands of folks who cannot handle them in a responsible way—and have a record of that, a court-adjudicated record … This makes my Second Amendment rights stronger … My Second Amendment rights are only put at risk by people who use…guns in an improper way.
But on a more basic level, law-abiding gun owners are human beings like everyone else. They should want a background check on every gun sale to ensure the safety and well-being of their fellow Americans.
3. The ‘Forty Percent Myth.’
This really pissed off a lot of gun owners. For a long while, gun control advocates kept spouting off how 40 percent of gun sales were made without a background check.
“We don’t need more laws. We need a couple of fixes,” NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in July, on CBS’ Face the Nation. “There’s a loophole where you can sell guns without a background check at a gun show, 40 percent of guns are sold that way, same thing on the Internet.”
Well, as it turns out, that number is inflated. It’s not accurate.
The Washington Post gave the 40 percent figure two ‘Pinocchios’ (which implies “significant omissions and/or exaggerations”) and made the following conclusion:
In other words, rather than being 30 to 40 percent (the original estimate of the range) or “up to 40 percent” (Obama’s words), gun purchases without background checks amounted to 14 to 22 percent. And since the survey sample is so small, that means the results have a survey caveat: plus or minus six percentage points.
So, the question is, at a negotiating table where there is already inherent distrust on both sides, do you think this false metric compounded the problem or made bipartisan progress on this issue more difficult?
LE: Here is what Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler actually concluded:
We are faced with a conundrum here. We generally believe politicians should use the most up-to-date and relevant information available, but congressional foes of gun control have made it difficult to improve on obviously stale information. The small sample size is also a serious problem, but again, roadblocks have made it difficult to do a more comprehensive survey. At the same time, President Obama and the White House gun-violence plan act as if the information is fresh and relevant; it has also been repeated as current information by the news media. The Obama gun-violence plan cites ‘studies,’ but in fact these all are merely riffs on the same, relatively small survey taken nearly two decades ago … Going forward, gun-control advocates should be much more upfront about its problems, especially the fact that it is old information. The 30-to-40 percent range that Cook and Ludwig first deduced should be the norm, not the ‘up to 40 percent’ claim. Moreover, advocates should routinely acknowledge this is stale information—which they are certainly free to blame on gun-industry lobbying.
Even if we simply accept the lower estimate above, 30%, that is still an enormous volume of firearms changing hands without any screening whatsoever. Furthermore, I’d have a hard time believing that private sales of firearms have decreased since 1994 when the Cook and Ludwig data was obtained. The advent of the Internet since that time means that it’s easier than ever to advertise and sell guns in this manner. And isn’t it the pro-gun movement that tells us that gun commerce has reached an all-time peak in the wake of President Obama’s re-election? You can’t have it both ways…
The bottom line, though, is that we know from survey data that private transfers are overwhelmingly the primary source by which criminals obtain guns. It’s time to cut off their access by forcing those who supply them with guns to conduct background checks—or answer to the law.
4. Polling data
On the issue of mistrust between the two camps, another number that is being thrown around rather loosely that gives gun owners pause or cause for consternation is the idea that 74-85 percent of gun owners or NRA members support UBCs.
Polls by the NSSF and the ISRA contradict these numbers.
According to the results of the NSSF poll, 85.7 percent of gun dealers oppose UBCs. When asked whether requiring background checks on all gun sales, even those private transactions, made between hobbyists and collectors, would stop criminals from obtaining firearms, 95.7 percent answered “no.”
According to result from the ISRA, two-thirds of respondents oppose background checks on private gun sales – even if the government was required to destroy all records of the background checks.
How do you reconcile these contradictory findings?
LE: The polls that have found that 74-85% of gun owners/NRA members support universal background checks have been conducted by respected, professional polling firms using scientific methodologies.
NSSF and ISRA conducted online surveys that did not employ any such methodologies. They did not utilize random samples; the surveys were instead completed by self-selected respondents. As a result, they don’t give us any real indication of how FFLs or gun owners in general feel about universal background checks.
Why hasn’t the NRA, NSSF, ISRA or any other gun lobby organization (ever) hired a professional polling firm to give them answers on these questions? Probably because they don’t want an accurate answer.
The Manchin-Toomey expanded background check amendment failed to clear the Senate, coming up short by 6 votes (54-46, 60 was needed to add the Amendment). Did you support the M-T amendment, which would have required background checks on all gun purchases made over the Internet and at gun shows while omitting those made between friends, family and neighbors?
LE: We did, and rather than restating our position here, I would simply direct folks to our statement about the amendment at this link.
6. The road ahead
Moving forward on the issue of UBCs, which is arguably the centerpiece of President Obama’s gun control agenda, do you feel that there’s enough political capital (in the White House, in Congress) to get a deal done on this issue?
Is the sun setting on federal gun control reform?
LE: Just the opposite. I think a new day dawned on gun reform on that terrible morning of December 14, 2012. To quote Mark Barden, who lost his 7-year-old son at Sandy Hook Elementary, “We will not be defeated. We are not defeated, and we will not be defeated. We are here now. We will always be here because we have no other choice. We are not going away. And every day, as more people are killed in this country because of gun violence, our determination grows stronger.” I think those words reflect the feelings of all of us who work in this movement, including victims and survivors of gun violence.
The Senate’s votes on April 17, 2013 were certainly discouraging, but at the same time, there is a larger context here that is interesting. The Toomey-Manchin amendment, of course, was a watered down version of the Fix Gun Checks Act of 2013. Even had it passed the Senate and the House, the version that finally emerged after a conference on the legislation likely would have been weaker still. That would have left significant loopholes to be addressed in regulating private sales of firearms. And would any other weaknesses in our gun laws have been addressed? Maybe not. But at that point, the Senate and House would have been able to wash their hands of the problem and say, “We acted.”
But, of course, the Senate didn’t act. With victims and survivors of mass shootings from across the country sitting in the gallery, they voted with the NRA and did nothing to prevent the next tragedy from occurring. As a result, Americans from coast to coast have been galvanized to take this issue to heart and make it a priority. I think the NRA has (inadvertently) given us the opportunity to achieve real reform that will dwarf what was being offered in the Toomey-Manchin amendment.
I’ve been working on this issue now for 13 years. I have never seen more energy in the grassroots of the gun violence prevention movement. And nothing stopped on April 17th. Actions are continuing in states across the country, including in states that are traditionally NRA strongholds. The campaign finance picture, too, forever changed in the November 2012 election, in which Mayors Against Illegal Guns co-chair Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC dramatically outperformed the NRA’s primary PAC. And in the 2014 midterms, of course, we will add Gabby Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions PAC to the mix.
We are now in a position to reward politicians who prioritize the safety of our families over gun industry profits and end the political careers of those who don’t. I’ve never felt more confident that real gun reform is achievable; reform that will save countless lives. The actions of states like New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Delaware are merely a prelude of what is to come.
In theory, I think many gun owners favor universal background checks on all gun sales. However, I think in practice many gun owners are skeptical about the government apparatus or bureaucracy that would be created to ensure background checks are happening on every transaction.
Obviously, there’ve been rumblings about a federal registry of law-abiding gun owners, what do you say to these concerns?
Do you support extensive record keeping and a federal database?
LE: We do support licensing and registration of gun owners and firearms, yes. It reduces rates of gun death wherever it is implemented, whether we are talking about other high-income countries or states right here in the U.S.
Pro-gun activists will often say, “But licensed gun owners don’t commit crimes!” That’s exactly the point. Licensing and registration instills accountability on the part of gun owners because they know if their gun(s) ends up on a crime scene it will be traced to them and they will be held accountable (assuming they did not previously report it as lost or stolen). Licensing and registration also helps law enforcement by allowing them to immediately distinguish between “good guys” and “bad guys” when responding to crime scenes. If someone is not able to produce a proper license for a firearm, law enforcement can remove that firearm from the scene immediately, thereby potentially alleviating harm (particularly in all-too-common situations of domestic violence).
The NRA loves to promote the conspiracy theory that licensing and registration will lead to mass confiscation of firearms and then…I don’t know…attack by black helicopters and enslavement at FEMA camps?
But that hasn’t happened in practice. For example, Americans have been required to license and register fully automatic machine guns in this country since 1934. Maybe I missed the news, but I don’t recall any mass confiscation of machine guns occurring in the past 79 years. I must have missed the enslavement thing on that one, too.
Additionally, more than ten states already have licensing and/or registration laws on the books, either for handguns or all firearms, and I don’t recall any mass confiscation of weapons in those states, or any nefarious campaigns by “Chinese hackers” or the “Mexican government” to target licensed gun owners.
Ditto for other high-income nations. Virtually every other democracy has national licensing and registration laws and, last I checked, these were still free countries.
The only person who should truly fear a licensing/registration law is someone who has something to hide, i.e., someone who is engaged in criminal activity or who surreptitiously wants to prepare for war with his own government. The overwhelming majority of Americans are neither criminals nor traitors, however, which is why you find strong support for registration even in red states like Kentucky.
8. Efficacy of UBCs
Will UBCs actually work? That is to say, will they save lives? Will they reduce violent crime? Will they prevent another Sandy Hook? Is there empirical evidence to suggest that they’ll make a difference?
I interviewed Paul Barrett on the subject, here’s what he had to say:
As for the background check system, there is not clear-cut real social science evidence that it has had an effect on crime levels. Nevertheless, my instinct is that even without substantial social science evidence, having the background check system in place is a broad and not perfect but nevertheless possible healthy deterrent to prevent the wrong people from getting guns some amount of the time — even if I can’t prove it.
Do you acknowledge the lack of hard data to substantiate the efficacy of UBCs?
LE: I don’t. There is actually a good deal of data to suggest how important background checks are.
For starters, we know they stop prohibited purchasers from buying guns. Since the Brady law was enacted in 1994, more than 2 million prohibited purchasers have been stopped from buying firearms [Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Background Checks for Firearms Transfer, 2009,” Department of Justice, 2010].
There is also a tremendous amount of research indicating that prohibited purchasers are more likely to engage in violent crime than the general population. Much of this research is collected in the October 2012 report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research entitled “The Case for Gun Policy Reforms in America.”
That said, the private sales loophole undermines the Brady law on a daily basis, giving prohibited purchasers an easy way to evade background checks and buy firearms without drawing any attention from authorities. That’s why, if we are truly serious about keeping guns out of dangerous hands, we must extend background checks to all gun sales (though the exemptions for transfers between immediate family members found in the Fix Gun Checks Act are entirely reasonable). That day is coming, probably sooner rather than later, as more than 90% of Americans realize what a no-brainer this is.
9. The end game
Many gun owners subscribe to the slippery-slope argument. It’s universal background checks today, universal registration tomorrow, and universal confiscation in the not too distant future.
Now, as much as gun control proponents like to dismiss this argument, there is a concerted effort by some lawmakers in this country (especially at the state level) to take lawfully owned property away from responsible gun owners. Specifically retroactive bans on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammo (there’s also been some confiscatory legislation introduced with respect to so-called military style ‘assault’ weapons).
So, with that in mind, what’s the end game here? When will gun control advocates be satisfied? Does it stop at UBCs? Or is that just a starting point for a new wave of regulations?
LE: The slippery slope has actually been tilted the other way for the past 35 years, as the NRA has systematically weakened state and federal gun laws to the point where even homicidal maniacs can often legally stockpile firearms. I haven’t heard pro-gun activists complain too much about that (think Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, etc.). It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.
The notion that we’re going to repair everything wrong with America’s gun laws by passing one bill is ridiculous by any standard. And can you imagine if someone had told the NRA in 1986, “You guys just passed the Firearm Owners Protection Act. You’re all done, right?” What a laugh the gun lobbyists would have had over that one.
So no, we are not going to pack up shop if Congress passes a law requiring universal background checks. We live in a representative democracy. We debate over the proper scope of our laws. We will continue to engage in that debate, actively. What separates us from the pro-gun movement is that we have faith that our Constitution provides the necessary checks and balances to make sure that our nation never lapses into either tyranny or anarchy. We can negotiate our policy differences peacefully and democratically, and that is what our Founders intended. That means compromise, however, not absolutism.
During all the years I’ve worked on this issue, I’ve never advocated for any policy that would prevent a responsible, law-abiding citizen from owning a firearm to hunt, to engage in sport or recreation with, or to defend a home. I have no issue with the legitimate use of firearms, and I respect those who enjoy guns and see them as part of a rich tradition, something to take pride in. But there has to be some type of reasonable balance between individual liberty and public safety, and right now, our system is badly out of whack. I hope the pro-gun movement will engage in this conversation in an honest and thoughtful manner, and reject conspiracy theories which add nothing rational or substantive to the dialogue. But time will tell.
Big thanks to Ladd for doing this again. Very few gun control advocates are willing to step into the lion’s den, so to speak. So, even if you disagree with every word he’s written (kinda like I do), you have to respect his willingness to tell us directly how he feels.