by Jason Fagone
Lately, in between other projects, I’ve been reading about guns and the gun debate. After the Newtown massacre, it’s been hard not to. Also, I live just outside of Philadelphia, where it’s likely that gun-related violence has left tens of thousands with post-traumatic stress disorder, and where 1,243 people have been shot this year alone. This is an attempt to organize my thoughts and document some of what I’ve learned. I’m far from an expert, so if you know a fair amount about this issue, you’ll probably find this stuff redundant and obvious. I’m embarrassed to say that much of it has come as a surprise to me.
This is kind of long. Maybe save it to Pocket?
1. Holy shit is it easy to get guns in America. There are more than three and a half times as many gun stores in this country (51,438) as there are McDonald’s restaurants (14,098). Fifty thousand gun stores. 7,356 pawn shops and 61,562 licensed collectors on top of that. And this is just the regulated part of the market, where background checks are supposed to screen out those not legally allowed to own firearms: convicted felons, those “adjudicated mentally defective,” fugitives, and others. Thanks to a huge loophole in the Gun Control Act of 1968, there’s also a vast informal market of unlicensed dealers and private sellers who aren’t required to perform background checks.
A private seller can’t knowingly sell a gun to someone he suspects isn’t allowed to have one. But he’s not required to ask questions or keep records. It’s legal to sell a gun in America for cash and a handshake. Forty percent of all gun sales take place without background checks. You can get a good sense of what’s out there by browsing Armslist.com, an Internet gun exchange. “No background check required,” reads one ad on Armslist for a Franken Gun AR15 ‘Assault Weapon’ (the ad was first pointed out by Businessweek). “Just cash face to face with valid PA Driver’s License. It’s Pandemonium!” Here’s a similar ad for a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle: “Get this one today and not have to wait a week for a background check.” Here’s one for a SCAR 16 semi-automatic rifle: “Get this rifle b4 Christmas with no waiting on a background check. I am taking CASH offers.”
The AR-15 semi-automatic rifle was Adam Lanza’s gun. It’s what he used to murder 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Have you seen all these stories about people flooding gun shows and gun shops to buy the same gun and the same high-capacity magazines of .223-caliber ammo? The simple fact is that we have no idea how many are law-abiding citizens and how many are felons, dangerously mentally ill, or otherwise prohibited from owning guns. Surely the vast majority are law-abiding citizens. But what’s the split? 99.99/.01? 98/2? No idea. We don’t know.
The obvious fix is to make background checks universal. Background checks are the low-hanging fruit of this debate. People on both the left and the right agree that we need to require them on all gun purchases. But on Meet the Press recently, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre disagreed. “What the anti-second amendment movement wants to do is put every gun sale in he country under the thumb of the federal government,” he said. “Congress debated this at length. They said if you’re a hobbyist or collector, if someone in West Virginia, a hunter, wants to sell a gun to another hunter, he ought to be able to do it without being under the thumb of the federal government.”
2. People who have lost their gun rights due to mental illness can petition to get their guns back. This is true. This is current U.S. law. Read the lead anecdote from this great 2011 New York Times piece by Michael Luo:
In May 2009, Sam French hit bottom, once again. A relative found him face down in his carport “talking gibberish,” according to court records. He later told medical personnel that he had been conversing with a bear in his backyard and hearing voices. His family figured he had gone off his medication for bipolar disorder, and a judge ordered him involuntarily committed — the fourth time in five years he had been hospitalized by court order.
When Mr. French’s daughter discovered that her father’s commitment meant it was illegal for him to have firearms, she and her husband removed his cache of 15 long guns and three handguns, and kept them after Mr. French was released in January 2010 on a new regime of mood-stabilizing drugs.
Ten months later, he appeared in General District Court — the body that handles small claims and traffic infractions — to ask a judge to restore his gun rights. After a brief hearing, in which Mr. French’s lengthy history of relapses never came up, he walked out with an order reinstating his right to possess firearms.
The next day, Mr. French retrieved his guns.
“The judge didn’t ask me a whole lot,” said Mr. French, now 62. “He just said: ‘How was I doing? Was I taking my medicine like I was supposed to?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
The Times piece goes on to describe how the NRA and Congress created this loophole. It had to do with the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, in which a mentally unstable Virginia Tech student named Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 and wounded 17 in a gun rampage on that school’s campus. As it turned out, a judge had flagged Cho, two years earlier, as “an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness.” Cho should have been stopped from buying his guns — two semi-automatic pistols, a Glock and a Walther. But he wasn’t. He bought the Walther at a pawn shop and cleared the background check after just a ten-minute wait.
After Virginia Tech, Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who has sought to limit illegal gun sales, helped pass a bill to make it easier for states to share their mental-health records with the FBI, which manages the background-check system. The NRA agreed — but there was a catch. They wanted to carve out a path for people in the system — people who had been deemed “mentally defective” or involuntarily committed for mental-health care — to get their gun rights back if they could show that they were no longer a threat to public safety. The NRA said it was to help returning veterans; the NRA’s chief lobbyist told the Times, “We don’t want to treat our soldiers as potential criminals because they’re struggling with the aftermath of dealing with their service.”
“After the bill became law in 2008,” the Times writes, “the N.R.A. began lobbying state lawmakers to keep requirements for petitioners to a minimum.”
3. There isn’t enough good data. Forget, for a second, that 40 percent of gun sales take place without background checks. Forget that we can never know how many criminals are buying guns on the informal market. Let’s just ask a simple question about sales from licensed dealers. In the last month alone, three shooters intent on killing as many as possible — the Clackamas mall shooter, Adam Lanza, and the murderer of the Rochester firefighters — have selected AR-15 semi-automatic rifles. So: In the two weeks after Newtown, how many people who tried to buy AR-15s from licensed gun dealers were screened out by background checks?
We don’t know the answer. We don’t know because the government only releases the most paltry aggregate yearly data on people who are denied guns by background checks. The data on the FBI’s website is only broken down by the reason for denial: so many felons, so many fugitives, etc. It’s not broken down by state, region, city, gun shop, or type of gun.
As a nation, we collect data on auto accidents. We collect data on outbreaks of food poisoning and defective children’s toys. We do this to prevent unnecessary deaths. When it comes to guns, though, we don’t collect data in the same way. The NRA, by arguing that better data would only lead to gun confiscation, has successfully pressured Congress and some states to stop the collection and public dissemination of data that might help us get a handle on the gun-violence and illegal-gun problem.
The NRA has targeted the Centers for Disease Control, intimidating its leaders and its scientists. It has targeted doctors, supporting legislation in seven states that would punish doctors if they “even discuss firearm safety” with patients. (Florida already has such a law.) The NRA has even kept essential streams of data out of the hands of law enforcement. In 2003, a Kansas Congressman and NRA ally named Todd Tiahrt inserted an amendment into a larger spending bill that “removed from the public record a government database that traces guns recovered in crimes back to the dealers,” according to a 2010 Washington Post story. The amendment effectively “shields retailers from lawsuits, academic study and public scrutiny.” A police source told the Post that the Tiahrt Amendment “was extraordinary, and the most offensive thing you can think of. The tracing data, which is now secret, helped us see the big picture of where guns are coming from.”
Now, because the NRA and Congress have resisted building a central registry of guns, the ATF is forced to use an antiquated system to trace guns used in crimes:
When law enforcement officers recover a gun and serial number, workers at the bureau’s National Tracing Center here — a windowless warehouse-style building on a narrow road outside town — begin making their way through a series of phone calls, asking first the manufacturer, then the wholesaler and finally the dealer to search their files to identify the buyer of the firearm.
About a third of the time, the process involves digging through records sent in by companies that have closed, in many cases searching by hand through cardboard boxes filled with computer printouts, hand-scrawled index cards or even water-stained sheets of paper.
In the past few weeks I’ve read a lot of arguments against passing new laws to limit illegal guns and reduce gun violence. Most of these arguments say there’s no data showing that prior laws have been effective — in particular, the assault-weapons ban of 1994-2004. Maybe that’s because the assault-weapons ban really didn’t work. (Salon has gathered studies showing that the ban was indeed effective.) But maybe it’s because Congress has made it extraordinarily hard to know the answer.
4. A semi-automatic rifle with .223-caliber ammunition is a powerful weapon. After the Sandy Hook massacre, I noticed several writers making an argument that struck me as odd: Adam Lanza’s gun — a Bushmaster AR-15 semi-automatic rifle — isn’t a particularly powerful one. I first saw the argument in a New York Times story on the AR-15: “Defenders say that most AR-15s are chambered for .223 or 5.56 ammunition, low-caliber rounds that are less deadly than those used in many handguns.” It also popped up at the National Review, where Robert VerBruggen argued that “the .223-caliber ammo in Lanza’s rifle is banned for deer hunting in some states on the grounds that it’s too weak,” and at the Daily Beast, where Megan McArdle wrote that the AR-15 “is normally used for target shooting and varmint hunting; my understanding is that it is not really big enough to humanely take down a deer.”
The more I looked, the more examples I found. Here’s a former member of the NRA board of directors arguing after the Clackamas Mall shooting in Oregon that the shooter’s .223 Remington “is not a particularly high-powered cartridge at all.” Here’s the editor of a small-town Pennsylvania newspaper arguing that “The rifle used in [Newtown] was not a ‘high-powered’ rifle… most hunters consider it unethical to use .223 cartridge on deer.” Here’s Instapundit in 2003, after D.C. sniper John Muhammad was apprehended with a Bushmaster .223, criticizing a lefty journalist for referring to the Bushmaster “as a ‘high-powered rifle.’ It’s not. Rifles firing the .223 cartridge aren’t ‘high-powered’ and calling them that just shows ignorance.” In his book Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, gun-industry reporter Paul Barrett argues that “military-style rifles… do not use particularly powerful ammunition, at least compared to the .30-06 rounds preferred by many hunters.” (To be fair to Barrett, he does add later, “A couple of well-placed bullets of any standard caliber will do grievous harm.”)
It’s true that .223 rounds aren’t as large as other kinds of rounds. But everything else about the argument that they are “weak” or “less lethal” or “not particularly powerful” is false and misleading.
I didn’t realize this at first. I didn’t know enough. I had read the medical examiner’s comments about the Newtown children’s “devastating” wounds: Lanza’s bullets were “ ‘designed in such a fashion [so that] the energy is deposited in the tissue so the bullet stays in,’ resulting in deep damage.” I was confused: Given the recent carnage, how could anyone say that Lanza’s rifle wasn’t high-powered? So I asked a question on my Twitter feed about the line from the New York Times article: “Defenders say that most AR-15s are chambered for .223 or 5.56 ammunition, low-caliber rounds that are less deadly than those used in many handguns.” Seth Fletcher, an editor at Popular Science who grew up in southwest Missouri, responded in a series of tweets I’ve stitched together here:
That is one of the most disingenuous things I have ever read. I’ve fired a .223 rifle. They are cannons. *M16s* shoot .223…. Saying .223 is a small caliber and thus less deadly than handgun ammo is like saying gamma rays have short wavelengths, thus less deadly. Caliber = diameter. Not mass or velocity or power. .223 is small caliber but has LOTS of gunpowder behind it. Thus deadly at 100s of yards.
Seth linked to a picture of two rounds, a .22 and a .223, compared to a penny.
To its champions, the AR-15 was an embodiment of fresh thinking. Critics saw an ugly little toy. Wherever one stood, no one could deny the ballistics were intriguing. The .223’s larger load of propellant and the AR-15’s twenty-inch barrel worked together to move the tiny bullet along at ultrafast speeds — in excess of thirty-two hundred feet per second, almost three times the speed of sound.
So: Is the .223 a powerful round? I guess it depends on your definition of powerful.
Would you consider a round that can bring down a 300-pound deer powerful? Here is an article from the NRA Hunter’s Rights website that makes the case for .223 as a deer-hunting round:
The .223 may be controversial as a deer round, but ammunition experts argue that it is certainly capable of getting the job done quickly and efficiently.
“With good shot placement and bullet selection, I have no doubt in my mind that you can ethically harvest medium-sized game like whitetail deer,” said Jared Kutney, centerfire rifle and pistol development manager for Federal Premium Ammunition…
Kutney points out that determining the lethality of a firearm isn’t based just on the size of the caliber. How much killing power a firearm has is a function of caliber size and bullet selection.
“Penetration and transfer of energy, or expansion of the bullet, are both critical to achieve a lethal shot,” added Kutney. “They’re just as important as caliber.”
Consider today’s intricately designed, high-power .223 ammunition, like the 55-grain Barnes Triple-Shock and 60-grain Nosler Partition by Federal Cartridge Company. According to Kutney, “Either of those loads will bring down a 300-pound whitetail.”
In the clip, an employee of Smith & Wesson goes hunting for a giant aoudad — a goat-antelope — with a Smith & Wesson AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle. The rifle is loaded with .223. “These days the technology in ammo development over the last 4 or 5 years really has come a long way,” the Smith & Wesson guy says. “It really is a viable round. It’s something that people should seriously think about.”
In the video, you see the guy setting up his rifle from 150 yards away. He trains it on the giant aoudad. The kill shot comes at 4:10 in the video. There is only one shot. The animal immediately convulses, crumples, and plunges down a rocky embankment. “That shot, I was pretty excited about it,” the Smith & Wesson guy explains afterward. “Because I took that shot on an animal that is pretty tough to kill. With a .223 round, which is pretty small… and it had no problem with this one. And it went straight down.”
I write all this with reluctance. It feels strange to respond to such an absurd argument. And the journalist Elspeth Reeve has already capably dismantled it. But I keep seeing it again and again. Opponents of new laws to limit illegal gun sales and curb gun violence clearly find it rhetorically useful to understate the power of semi-automatic assault-style rifles (also called “modern sporting rifles”). It appears to be a common and long-running strategy. I think the point is to draw those who want new laws into a trap. If opponents of new laws can convince people that the weapons aren’t as powerful as commonly portrayed, then anyone arguing for a ban on AR-15s will have to argue for a ban on “more powerful” weapons as well, like certain kinds of hunting rifles.
This is the conversation opponents of new laws want to have: a conversation about the power of the round. I think the response is obvious. As Patrick Radden Keefe pointed out in the New Yorker, “…the only non-military context in which a high-capacity magazine proves decisively useful for the shooter is one in which you are trying to mow down as many civilians as possible before you get killed by a SWAT team.” Although an assault-style rifle with a bunch of 30-round magazines is undeniably a powerful weapon, the case for banning it — the gun and the magazines — rests not on the power of its round but on its ability to kill the maximum number of people in the shortest amount of time.
5. There are few, if any, centrist gun experts. As others have pointed out, the two sides of this issue largely live in different worlds. Gun owners don’t understand the left’s squeamishness about guns, and the left doesn’t understand gun owners’ love of them. I wanted to learn more about guns, so I went looking for a centrist guide. I wanted to read a book by someone with ties to the gun culture who also appreciates the gun-violence problem.
All roads led to Paul Barrett, author of Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun, assistant managing editor at Businessweek, and a guy who is often quoted as an expert in stories about guns.
I read Glock. I read everything Barrett has written about guns in the last month for Businessweek, which is a lot. I watched him on MSNBC, describing his views on guns as “idiosyncratic” — not on the right, not on the left.
Here’s what I think about Paul Barrett: very sharp reporter. Good writer. Author of an impressive, useful book. But not a centrist. Barrett writes about guns from the right.
This isn’t even a close call. You can look at how Barrett mocks Bob Costas for “indulging in fantasies” about a less lethal America; you can look at how, in Glock, he refers to those on the left “the gun controllers”; you can look at Barrett defending the NRA and praising their “characteristic flair“; you can read his column about the recent Wayne LaPierre press conference, which basically transcribed LaPierre’s talking points without disputing any of them, save for one paragraph at the end; you can listen to Barrett advise a liberal radio host to “stop talking about the guns” and instead to “talk about crime”; you can compare his post-Newtown solutions for curbing future violence (post armed guards at schools, expand registries of the mentally ill) with the NRA’s post-Newtown solutions (post armed guards at schools, expand registries of the mentally ill); you can see him, in Glock, writing with a sort of glee about the fact that, whenever the left talks about new laws, gun manufacturers simply flood the market with new guns and make a fortune from panic buying.
All of these are giveaways. But the best way to tell where Barrett stands is what’s not in Barrett’s work: any kind of critique of the gun culture. He just tells us, over and over, that we live in a gun culture, therefore new laws probably won’t work. He presents the gun culture as monolithic, righteous, and powerful beyond measure. But it’s a vast culture! Barrett doesn’t distinguish between elements within it. In Glock, the militia movement of the ’90s and the standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco are all handled in one brief paragraph. President Obama is mentioned exactly twice, both times in policy contexts; you’d never get any sense that fantasies about secret Obama plans to confiscate guns and place conservatives into concentration camps might be nourishing private arsenals and stockpiles. Some random hunter who recently emailed Talking Points Memo does a better job in a few paragraphs of laying out the culture’s fault lines than Barrett does in hundreds of pages:
I can’t remember seeing a semi-automatic weapon of any kind at a shooting range until the mid-1980’s. Even through the early-1990’s, I don’t remember the idea of “personal defense” being a decisive factor in gun ownership. The reverse is true today: I have college-educated friends – all of whom, interestingly, came to guns in their adult lives – for whom gun ownership is unquestionably (and irreducibly) an issue of personal defense. For whom the semi-automatic rifle or pistol [the Glock is a semi-automatic pistol] – with its matte-black finish, laser site, flashlight mount, and other “tactical” accoutrements – effectively circumscribe what’s meant by the word “gun.” At least one of these friends has what some folks – e.g., my fiancee, along with most of my non-gun-owning friends – might regard as an obsessive fixation on guns; a kind of paraphilia that (in its appetite for all things tactical) seems not a little bit creepy. Not “creepy” in the sense that he’s a ticking time bomb; “creepy” in the sense of…alternate reality. Let’s call it “tactical reality.”
I’m not trying to pick on Barrett here. I’ve learned a lot from him. I think I’ve even gotten a few people to buy his book. I only want to point out an interesting lacuna. Polls show that gun owners hold less extreme views than the NRA leadership, and a majority of Americans support stricter gun laws. So why aren’t there more centrists who write regularly about guns? Has the influence and extremity of the NRA has made a true centrist position impossible to occupy? (I haven’t yet read C.J. Chivers’s The Gun. I’ve heard amazing things.)
More on where I’m coming from:
I haven’t written much about guns, unless you count the videogame and plastic varieties. Several years ago, I did write a long piece for GQ about a shooting in Philadelphia, a piece that involved some research into the FN 5.7 Herstal handgun. Before that, in 2003, I spent six months reporting on the Cincinnati Police Department, following a class of new recruits through the Academy. I was with them when they were issued their guns, and I was with them when they were taught how to shoot. After they graduated, I rode along with several of the new officers in the back of their cruisers. One night, I rode along in a SWAT van, on a raid. (I did the ride-alongs because I might write a book about the Cincinnati PD, but I moved out of the city before I had the chance.) Police organizations tend to support efforts to curb gun violence and promote gun safety, but I didn’t really talk to the officers about gun policy. Mostly what I got from the experience was a powerful sense of the arsenals that criminals commanded. This is what’s out there, I kept hearing. This is what we’re up against.
I don’t own a gun. Years ago, I did some target shooting at an interfaith religious retreat in rural Pennsylvania. I was taking photographs there for a college class (the photo at the top of the post is mine). It was the kind of retreat that had a belly-dancing class, Wiccan literature, and a bunch of people walking around without pants or tops. Also a gun range. I don’t remember the kind of gun I shot. I do remember being kind of distracted by the nudity. I remember the feeling of the recoil. I don’t have anything profound to say about what it was like to shoot a gun for the first time. I’m pretty sure I enjoyed it. The people running the retreat told me that, for a first-timer, I was a fairly accurate shot. I felt proud.
One last note. If you see any factual errors in this post, please let me know — jfagone at gmail dot com, or jfagone on Twitter — and I’ll correct.