Thursday, May 02, 2013

Thoughts on Gun Control - part eight. The Manchin-Toomey proposal. What went wrong?

The Manchin-Toomey proposal.  What went wrong? 

In other words, why didn't it pass?  The President, and VP Biden, and Emperor Bloomberg's mouthpiece organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns contend that the NRA and the Gun lobby (which they contend is the same thing) bought the votes to defeat M-T.  From where I sit it doesn't look that simple.  Let's walk through it a bit and see what went wrong:

(Citations for assertions at the bottom.)
The Presidents case for M-T

The President bases his call for the background check bill on two statements regarding the current law and one regarding public perception and desire.  Point by point: 
  • 40% of gun purchases are made without background checks. (1) 
The only source for this number is Cook and Ludwig's 1997 paper: "Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms" (2)   They assert:
We conclude that approximately 60 percent of gun acquisitions involved an FFL and hence were subject to Federal regulations on such matters as out-of-State sales, criminal history checks, and recordkeeping. A some-what higher percentage of handgun acquisitions than long gun acquisitions involved FFLs. The remaining acquisitions, amounting to about 2 million per year, were off-the-books transfers in the secondary market.
The study is from a survey of gun owners conducted in 1994 asking questions about purchases from 1991 to 1994.  The first problem is with the paragraph itself.  In the immediately previous paragraph the authors state that the percentage is 64%.  But the real problem is substantially different.  Looking at their summary chart of sources of guns, 63% were bought through stores guaranteed to be subject to Federal laws.  17% were acquired either by gift, inheritance or purchase from family members and 12% from acquaintances. A total of 4% of acquisitions were at gun shows or flea markets, and many of those would have been from Federally licenced firearms dealers.  A total of 4% of guns were listed under "other" which includes "I'm not sure or I don't remember."  At that time (1994) well over half of FFL's were what were called "Kitchen table dealers" that is, dealers operating out of their home.  It's entirely possible that individuals purchasing guns from them were not even aware that the person selling or trading them the gun was an FFL and subject to Federal regulations.   Cook and Ludwig state that 73% of guns were bought, and that 27% were gifts or inheritances.  Even the most reasonable and generous interpretation suggests that less than 4% of gun purchases are made without background checks.  Even if you assumed that  all gun show and other purchases were without background checks, it's impossible to get over 8%.  The President and the others citing this number are simply lying.  If they had said "gun acquisitions" instead of  "gun purchases," a case could be made for a number as high as 36% in 1994, but since then, the massive elimination of kitchen-table dealers during the Clinton administration, and the new stricter rules for FFL transfers would substantially reduce that number.  Still, as stated, the Presidents assertion that 40% of gun purchases are made without background checks is simply wrong.  The correct number appears to be about 4%, using the source they are citing.
  • "Over the past 20 years, background checks have kept more than 2 million dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun." (3)
This number is simply wrong. If you examine the 2009 (4) and 2010 (5) reports of NCIS background check denials a pattern emerges. Ninty three percent of initial denials from background checks are overturned or set aside as not worthy of pursuing.  Approximately 7% of denials are sent on to ATF regional offices to pursue.  According to the NCIS report, those forwarded to the ATF for followup involve:  "Denials because of protective orders, domestic violence misdemeanor convictions, and felony convictions comprised nearly 76% of referrals to field divisions. Referrals also involved persons who were an unlawful user of a controlled substance, under indictment or information, or a fugitive from justice. The six most common reasons for referral accounted for about 98% of the cases." (2009 report page 5)
 Of those cases sent on to the ATF regional offices, a further 27% turn out to have been false positives, that is, the person referred to the ATF regional office -- one of the 7% considered worth pursuing, more than a fourth of those cases turn out to be not a prohibited person.  Put those two numbers together and well over 95% of the initial denials generated by the NCIS background check system were incorrect and the statement that should have been made by the President is more along the lines of:   "Over the past 20 years, background checks have kept around 100,000 people from buying guns at federally licensed dealers while seriously inconveniencing around 1.9 million."  Let's note while we're at it, that the 100K who were actually prevented from getting guns included people who were convicted of any non-violent crime that had a potential sentence of more than a year. Not all of those are "dangerous" people, not that I'm suggesting they should have gun rights, but let's keep the exaggeration down please.
  • "Shouldn’t we make it harder, not easier for somebody who is convicted of domestic abuse to get his hands on a gun?  It turns out 90 percent of Americans think so.  Ninety percent of Americans support universal background checks." (3)
Well no, they don't. The poll the President was referring to didn't ask that.  It asked: "Would you support or oppose a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows?" The Manchin-Toomey bill did in fact, require background checks when people were buying guns at gun shows, and support for the idea was almost universal. It also required background checks between acquaintances, on guns advertised in any publication including church flyers & etc., on guns traded among acquaintances at a gun range, on guns given as a gift to someone not in your immediate family, and more.  The poll didn't ask about what the proposed law was going to enact.  Similarly, a CBS Quinnipac poll (7)  asked: "Do you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun buyers?"  And, once again, that's not what the bill called for.  A better poll buy Pew Research just after the vote in the Senate asked about public attitudes about the bill actually submitted with the question: “What word best describes how you feel about the Senate voting down new gun control legislation that included background checks on gun purchases? Dissapointed, Relieved or No Opinion.”  47 percent were disappointed and 39 percent were relieved.  That's hardly the 90 percent the President accused the Senate of ignoring. 
Universal Background Checks is not the same think as background checks for all gun sales.  If gifts and inheritance and sales between close friends isn't exempted, many Americans are opposed. 
  • "They claimed that it would create some sort of “big brother” gun registry, even though the bill did the opposite.  This legislation, in fact, outlawed any registry.  Plain and simple, right there in the text." (9)
Well no, it didn't.  The text of the proposed act outlawed any registry created by the office of the Attorney General. It didn't outlaw registries created by anyone else, not by the FBI, not by Homeland Security, not by anyone but the Attorney General.  Pro gun people didn't say that the bill would create a registry, it didn't.  But it also didn't outlaw one. 

So, the Senate did not vote to support the Manchin-Toomey bill. That came as no surprise to anyone who had actually read the proposal and who had seen the groundswell of opposition among the gun owning public. A straightforward background check for gun sales bill might well have passed. This thing, not so much. 

Links to background material cited above:

  1. " Why wouldn’t we want to close the loophole that allows as many as 40 percent of all gun purchases to take place without a background check?"  2013/03/28 president-obama-speaks-protecting-our-children-gun-violence  (You may have to click the "read transcript" button.)
  2.  "Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms" Cook & Ludwig, 1997.   The 40% number comes from page 6.  
  3. 2013/04/08 President Obama speaks on reducing gun violence   (You may have to click the "read transcript" button.) 
  4. 2009 NCIS statistics report
  5. 2010 NCIS statistics report
  6. Washington Post - ABC pool April 12
  7. CBS - Quinnipac University Poll
  8. Pew Research Poll
  9. 2013/04/17 president-obama-speaks-common-sense-measures-reduce-gun-violence
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