Heil Gun Show Registrations
by Ari Armstrong, February 25, 2004
It comes as no surprise that a "study" praising the alleged benefits of Colorado's Amendment 22 -- the law that requires Brady registrations for private sales at gun shows -- has been released just as some U.S. Senators are contemplating a national law in the same vein. Never mind the Bill of Rights.
In a February 24 e-mail, Dudley Brown, Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, warned the U.S. Senate will consider proposals to extend the Clinton gun ban and impose a nation-wide Brady gun-owner registration program for private sales at gun shows. Brown points out the anticipated federal language is more severe than Colorado's law. If these measures make it through a Republican Congress and a Republican President, gun owners will have definitive, irrefutable evidence that Republicans (as a whole, with individual exceptions) are the enemies of the right of self-defense.
On February 24, both the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post published somewhat balanced stories about the "study." The headline in the Post was slanted. David Olinger's article was titled, "State's gun-show law hailed: Group: Fewer firearms from Colo. used in crime." At least the News' article by Tillie Fong had a contrary sub-head: "Colorado hailed for closing gun loophole: But some dispute findings that action has cut crime."
In both cases, who precisely is doing the "hailing?" It is, of course, a victim-disarmament group. So why do the headlines ignore this essential context? A more neutral headline would simply have stated the two sides disagree over the significance of the findings.
The "study" is manifestly pseudo-scientific nonsense, and both papers give it too much play and fail to point out its most serious problems. Olinger writes, "Colorado exported fewer guns used to commit crimes after enacting a law requiring background checks on all gun-show sales, according to a group [Americans for Gun Safety] campaigning for a similar national law... Its conclusions were based on 36,828 federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms criminal traces of guns purchased in one state but used for criminal purposes in another. According to Deborah Barron, a spokeswoman for Americans for Gun Safety, Colorado's per-capita ranking as a crime-gun exporter dropped from 17th to 27th in the year after it began requiring background checks on all gun-show sales. 'Colorado is proof that closing the gun-show loophole results in fewer crime guns being tracked across state lines,' Barron said. 'Colorado is now exporting fewer crime guns'."
To Olinger's credit, he adds, "The report does not identify how many of the guns that were later used in crimes had been sold at gun shows."
The "study" by Americans for Gun Safety (AGS) is fundamentally flawed, as its data set -- ATF gun traces -- is unsuitable for assessing crime trends. As a summary of work by David Kopel and Paul Blackman points out, "The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) sometimes traces the history of firearms used in crime. Typically, the trace reveals the gun's history from its manufacture to its sale by a licensed retail firearms dealer. BATF traces occasionally have been a useful tool for investigating individual crimes. In recent years, however, some persons have attempted to use BATF trace data to study gun violence and evaluate firearms policies. There are severe limitations on the utility of the BATF data for criminological analysis. These limits include the relatively small number of crime guns that BATF traces, BATF's rules about what guns it will not even attempt to trace, and the limited information supplied by gun traces. The authors suggest that BATF trace figures are not a sound foundation for criminological research."
In an earlier document, Kopel notes only a small percent of guns used in crimes are traced, most traces do not pertain to violent crime, and traces do not indicate whether a gun was legally or illegally transported across state lines. Kopel likens ATF traces to "psychoanalyst's inkblots: the viewer always finds in them exactly what he wants to see." Of course, neither the Post nor the News bothered to point out to readers that there is absolutely no scientific legitimacy to AGS's release. But, hey, AGS got its media coverage, and the papers got their sensational "news" stories.
Let us assume, though, for the sake of argument, that the gun traces do have something to do with actual trends. That is, let us assume that Colorado's ranking changed for reasons other than random factors or preexisting trends.
AGS claims "74% of crime guns that were trafficked across state lines in 2001 originated in states where the gun show loophole is open," but AGS dishonestly indicates this is a causal link. There is no evidence to suggest a causal connection between gun-show laws and the criminal trafficking of guns.
Surprisingly, though, both Olinger and Fong completely ignore a far more plausible theory as to why Colorado's ranking may have changed. Following the murders at Columbine, prosecutors in Colorado (both federal and local) looked with renewed zeal to the prosecution of crimes involving guns. Both the Post and the News have published numerous stories about this trend. This happened during the same time frame as the passage of Amendment 22. Of course, gun owners dislike the prosecution of "victimless crimes" involving guns, such as unintentional paperwork violations, but everybody agrees actual violent criminals should be taken off the streets. But increased enforcement efforts have nothing to do with gun shows.
The AGS release makes two other crucial errors. First, it ignores strong evidence that criminals rarely purchase guns at gun shows. Kopel has provided extensive and persuasive evidence on that score. Second, the "study" fails to find a link (it doesn't even bother to look) between changes in the criminal trafficking of guns and rates of violent crime. Fong quotes Barron, "If you close the loophole, crime drops." On top of the points already described, there's no reason to think that changes in cross-state criminal gun trafficking per se are related to changes in violent crime rates. Criminals can get guns from other states, from untraceable sources, or from within their own states (and of course they can use other weapons).
Given these obvious points, the claims of Americans for Gun Safety are worse than anti-scientific: they are outright lies propagated for political ends. But Amendment 22 has always been part of a campaign to eventually require national, universal gun-owner registration.
Fong does include a helpful quote by George Epp, head of County Sheriffs of Colorado: "The data that I'm seeing in crime gun traces shows that very few come from gun shows... To conclude there will be a drastic reduction in crime by closing the gun show loophole is a stretch."
In The Bias Against Guns, John Lott notes "there is no empirical research linking gun show regulations to crime rates" (194). However, there is at least as great a reason to believe expanded gun registrations empower criminals. "[B]ackground checks can prevent law-abiding citizens from getting guns -- or at least prevent them from getting them quickly" (196). Lott also points out that higher prices imposed through registration leads to marginally fewer gun purchases by law-abiding citizens, which in turn creates marginally less risk for criminal predators.
Looking at the data and existing crime trends, Lott concludes neither "closing the gun show loophole [nor] banning assault weapons produced any noticeable benefit in terms of lower crime rates." Indeed, he finds some evidence that "closing the gun show loophole... raised murder rates and robbery rates" (210).
AGS makes the laughable claim that, because more gun shows are held in states with gun-show registration for private sales, therefore gun-show laws don't hurt gun shows. No serious researcher would make such a pathetic leap of logic.
Lott's cross-time statistical regressions, on the other hand, "provide consistent evidence that closing the gun show loophole, enacting the assault weapons ban, and instituting waiting periods significantly reduce the number of gun shows" (205). Further, "the effect of background checks on private transfers is statistically significant and quite large, with estimates implying between an 11 to 24 percent drop in gun shows."
The Left -- or at least the Old Left that actually gave a damn about the Bill of Rights -- would be horrified if a system of book registration reduced the number of book swaps by "11 to 24 percent." The registration law would accurately be seen as a violation of the First Amendment right of free speech. Similarly, the gun-show registration law violates people's natural rights of self-defense.
And, as CU philosophy professor Michael Huemer points out, justice and people's rights must be given weight along with considerations of the crime. But the victim disarmament group Americans for Gun Safety can't even offer intellectually honest views about simple empirical matters, so I don't hold out much hope the group's representatives will entertain a serious discussion about ethics.
In Other News...
According to the February 24 Rocky, the Colorado House defeated bill 1205, which "would have eliminated a statewide database of concealed-weapons permit holders." Make no mistake: Colorado's CCW system registers gun owners with the state. Of course, the police want as much information about people as possible. I suspect that, if police had access to our retinal scans, fingerprints, and DNA, and the legislature tried to limit police access to that information, the enforcement establishment would scream as loudly. But in a free society, the only people in government databases are those who have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt to have committed a crime of violence or fraud.
On February 10, the state house killed a bill that would have allowed concealed carry without government registration. At least the legislature also killed a bill concerning gun storage. Such legislation discourages legitimate self-defense, and anyway child-abuse laws already provide criminal penalties for putting children in danger.
Some legislators have tried to stop the Colorado agencies from collecting the Social Security number for hunting licenses. The pretext for this abuse of privacy is to catch "deadbeat dads." Proposed legislation would defer to the federal government on the matter. However, Jeff Write pointed out in an e-mail he circulated, "The only place where federal law supersedes state law is in the areas which the U.S. Constitution grants the U.S. Congress that power and jurisdiction. There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution granting the federal government authority or jurisdiction over state wildlife management or the licensing of individuals with regard to same. It is true that the feds have illegally seized power from the states and the people for decades through unbelievable usurpations using the 'interstate commerce' clause of the US Constitution. That does not make it right, moral or legal... There is no authority whatsoever in the Constitution to govern the tracking of 'deadbeat dads'... Without that authority it is automatically left to the states to decide if they wish. Yet the feds have taken it and will continue to do so until some state stands up on their hinds like humans again and takes back the scurrilous usurpations of the federal government."