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posted on 18 February 2016

The Gun Issue Revisited: Discussion With An NRA Member

by Elliott Morss, Morss Global Finance


The media's 24-hour coverage of recent terrorist shootings has Americans worried. In actual fact, mass shootings constitute a very small share of gun deaths. A recent study defined mass shootings as events where 4 or more deaths occurred. The findings: at most, only 23 people have died in mass shootings in each of the last 6 years.

To discuss these and other gun-related issues, I asked Bob Meyers, a friend and an NRA member, to offer his views.

Elliott: In a recent piece, I concluded fewer people would have been killed in the Paris theater terrorist attack if 50% or more theater-goers had guns. Same for San Bernardino: 80 party attendees vs. 2 terrorists: what if 50% of party attendees had been carrying guns? Of course, more gun carriers will mean more homicides, suicides and gun accidents.

Bob: We are on the same page regarding the "armed audience question". I agree that the terrorist who ventures into a venue with many armed attendees will probably not emerge alive. Uncertainty on the part of a terrorist (or any criminal) as to whether his intended victim may be armed is an effective deterrent to all manner of crimes against persons and/or property. However, regarding my point about collateral damage to innocent bystanders, I think the most favorable scenario for the average person in attendance at a large gathering is one similar to that of the armed "air marshal" (one per plane) who is trained and authorized to be armed on board an airplane. Even highly trained and disciplined law enforcement and military personnel are notoriously inaccurate in close range, survival mode situations. The presence of a few trained and armed people in an audience would be vastly preferable to a theatre full of them. Your main point concerning the deterrence factor of a potentially armed citizen is well taken, as the terrorist/criminal preference for "gun free zones" has demonstrated.

Relevant Data

Table 1 provides relevant data on deaths from guns and other sources. Smoking "leads the pack" with guns, autos and falls killing about the same numbers annually. Prescription overdoses are a recent phenomenon, up from under 10,000 in 2001.

Table 1. - Deaths by Selected Sources


Source: CDC, National Institute on Drug Abuse

As the following chart indicates, unintentional/accidental gun deaths have been falling.


Second Amendment

Elliott: There is a fundamental difference in our views on the Second Amendment to the US Constitution:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

In my view, this amendment does not fit today's world. The "people's well regulated militia" has been replaced by a Federal Government's militia costing more than $600 billion annually. The American people are being held hostage by a small portion of citizens backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The Second Amendment should be repealed.

Bob: There have been many opinions on what the intent of the Second Amendment was in the minds of the framers. One of them is that it was for protection from authoritarian governments, similar to the ones that existed in Europe, including the British monarchy that had just been overthrown by the colonies. I agree you that the political dynamic has changed since the Revolutionary War, and that the chances of armed private citizens prevailing against the array of weapons and tactics available to the military (especially for dealing with insurrections) are nil. In my opinion, the only chance that armed resistance would have would be if the military refused to fire on fellow citizens out of sympathy to their cause, or if significant defections occurred in the military's leadership.

The interpretation of the Second Amendment that matters today is given by the Supreme Court decisions "Heller vs. "District of Columbia v Heller" and "McDonald vs. Chicago". Repeal of the Second Amendment or modification of its provisions via the amendment process is an entirely legitimate pursuit for those who consider it an outdated Constitutional provision.


Bob: In my opinion, gun owner training will likely correlate highly with a reduction in gun accidents, but only minimally to a reduction in gun violence. Just as successfully passing a driver's license test does not deter careless and drunk drivers, testing and training will not be an impediment to those with criminal intent or mental issues.

The NRA is probably the preeminent firearm training organization in the world. It has over 100,000 instructors, coaches, and trainers with classes for youth, competitive shooting from elementary school through collegiate level, and professional law enforcement. As strong as they are on training, however, they do not endorse training as a precondition for firearm ownership. They strongly advise anyone against use of a firearm without accompanying training, but adamantly reject it as a legal barrier to firearm ownership in contravention of the second amendment.

This may seem to be at cross purposes to the general public, but it is an important distinction that is understood by gun owners suspicious of government motives. History is replete with examples of government action at the national level leading to eventual disarming of citizenry, the most recent example being Australia.

It should be noted that Australia's 1996 National Firearms Agreement (NFA) gun laws go considerably beyond what most Americans envision as "common sense" gun control. They define not only stricter ownership and possession requirements, but national registration of all legally owned guns, bans on certain types/models of guns (primarily semi-automatic), mandatory turn in/buy-back programs, and search/seizure/confiscation of any banned guns registered but not turned in with accompanying criminal penalties.

Elliott: I thought what Australia did was excellent. But here we go again with the Second Amendment argument:

"They [the NRA] strongly advise anyone against use of a firearm without accompanying training, but adamantly reject it as a legal barrier to firearm ownership in contravention of the second amendment."

So the NRA believes strongly in gun training but opposes it being a requirement for owning a gun. How about a new amendment saying it is OK to drive a car without training? This is foolish.

New Gun Regulations Will Not Reduce Homicides/Terrorist Attacks

Elliott: Gun supporters correctly point out that suggested new gun regulations would not have prevented deaths in recent attacks. However, training will reduce accidents. That is good enough for me. The senseless accidents that occur are tragic:

  • A lady shopping at Wal-Mart leaves a loaded revolver in her purse. Her 2-year child finds it and kills the mother with it;

  • Parents believing their 9-year old daughter should learn how to shoot a machine gun resulting in their daughter shooting her instructor;

  • An 11-year-old boy killed his 8-year-old neighbor with a shotgun. Each of the children had a puppy, and the 11-year-old "wanted to see the 8-year-old's puppy. She said no. The boy fired a 12-gauge shotgun from inside his house, striking the girl as she stood in her yard. The gun, which was stored in a closet without locks, belonged to the boy's father.

On regulation, there is an auto analogy worth considering - We have very good records on drivers that are shared among the police in all states. This allows us to penalize and regulate drivers for offenses wherever they occur. The NRA response? No national gun registration - it would be the beginning of taking away the guns of law-abiding gun owners.

Bob: Several states have gun ownership data bases as well as criminal offense data bases which are shared in the same way you mention about auto records. So far there has been no national registry for firearms, but I am not aware of any barrier preventing federal use of state data in investigating and prosecuting federal firearm law violations. The problem has been the lack of consistent and aggressive prosecution by state and federal law enforcement. In the few areas where joint state-federal enforcement has been prioritized (primarily urban areas), there have been positive results (ref. "Project Exile" in Richmond, VA, and "FACE 5" in Atlanta, GA).

Enforce Existing Laws

Bob: One of the most emphasized components of the NRA's recommendations for reducing gun violence is vigorous enforcement of the laws we already have. It is also an NRA criticism of gun control advocates that they do not insist on strict enforcement, opting rather to propose additional regulations, some of which are patently unenforceable. In my opinion, lack of effective law enforcement is part of the reason we have a gun violence problem in much the same way as we have an illegal immigration problem.

Personally, I don't have a problem with new gun regulation if I can understand how the proposed regulation would be effective in addressing the root causes of criminal gun violence. It must be clear and verifiable how the new measure would achieve its intended purpose. If the only result of increased regulation is more administrative hurdles for lawful and law abiding gun owners, then I support the NRA's vehement opposition. More constraints on legal gun owners that are intended to assuage political activists only reinforce my disdain for public opinion driven elected officials. There has to be a linkage drawn between the proposed regulation and the motivation of the criminal or unstable gun user.

The problem with regulating guns in the same way as regulating automobiles is a legal one. As long as Federal courts consider driving to be a state granted privilege and gun ownership to be an individual right under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, I doubt that attempts to impose the same degree of regulations on both would survive legal challenges.

Elliott: Laws can be changed and should be when they are not working in the public interest. I do not believe the Second Amendment is appropriate in this day and age.

Bob: I agree with you about changing the laws - even when it is a constitutional provision. But the one thing that separates us from the rest of nation states since time began is the genius of our constitutional system. That system defines a process to change what we feel needs to be changed - and history has demonstrated it to work (17 times since 1791).

Elliott: The genius of our system? When surveys regularly show that a large majority of Americans people want background checks? I have a very different view of our system of governance than you. I view it as a system not controlled by the people but by a limited number of special interest groups, one of which is the NRA. A good example is what happened to the Manchin -Toomey proposed legislation to require meaningful background checks. The NRA made sure it did not pass. Here was its rationale:

"This amendment would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens, requiring lifelong friends, neighbors and some family members to get federal government permission to exercise a fundamental right or face prosecution. As we have noted previously, expanding background checks, at gun shows or elsewhere, will not reduce violent crime or keep our kids safe in their schools."

I view this as outrageous. Why does it matter if someone is a lifelong friend? Background checks should be required on all transfers.

Bob: Although the NRA quote you give above was part of their objection to Manchin-Toomey, it was not the complete rationale. Unless a national registry exists to tell the government who has firearms (which Manchin-Toomey specifically prohibited), a requirement that all private sales must have background checks would be as ineffective as it would be unenforceable. If no one knows who owns guns, how do you enforce a requirement that a seller must get a background check done before he sells a gun? What is the probability that a nefarious or disreputable seller will seek out a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) to run a background check on a buyer? No one will know if a private seller decides to sell his gun without an FFL background check. Some sales to "prohibited persons" may be prevented by law abiding private sellers who comply by having an FFL conduct a background check on a buyer, but that is not where the vast majority of illegal gun trade is occurring. Whether at a gun show, or in a private venue, or via the internet - there is virtually no chance that this amendment will make any difference to discourage sales to "prohibited persons" by illegal sellers, especially when you consider that there will be a cost for the FFL's services. Furthermore, a law abiding private seller may actually face criminal liability if he sells a gun to a "prohibited person" who passes a background check with falsified information."

Regarding the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of "expanded background checks", it was reported in a 2009 Frank Lunz poll commissioned by the "Mayors Against Illegal Guns" organization that 90% of the US population and 74% of NRA membership support "universal" background checks for all gun sales. Other polls indicated the same general result, although the language of the poll questions varied. Some of the polls mentioned "expanded" criminal background checks to include some combination of gun show sales, private gun sales, and/or internet sales. Nevertheless, the sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of expanding the FBI's

National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to include gun sales not currently covered by existing law. I am a longtime NRA member, and despite the NRA's opposition to expanded background checks, I also agree with the concept. That said, it is important to distinguish between agreement with a concept and support of actual legislation. It would not be difficult to garner 90% favorable public opinion on several topics these days if you phrase the question properly. One technique is to include the term "reform". Reform implies improvement, and who doesn't want improvement? Does public opinion favor income tax reform? How about drug law reform? Despite heavily favorable public opinion on these concepts, the congressional majorities necessary to approve actual legislation are elusive. The devil is always in the details.


Elliott: I agree the data are not what they should be. Again, this goes back to the NRA. It is well documented that the NRA has successfully blocked meaningful data collection and analysis on guns and the resulting violence.

Bob: The NRA has no issue with collection and analysis of crime statistics by the FBI and Cause of Death statistics by the CDC and in fact considers them very reliable. They object, however, to the notion that gun violence is a public health issue and oppose additional CDC funding for collection of data by doctors on their patients' gun ownership for advocacy purposes. If successful, this tactic could open new avenues for expanding federal regulation and control in much the same way as the EPA designation of CO2 as a toxic gas has enabled it to increase regulatory control of fossil fuel electric power plants.

Elliott: How twisted can the arguments get? There is no better source on the reasons for US deaths than the CDC. The NRA agrees with this. How do we get from the CDC collecting data on gun deaths to the CDC collecting data on what living Americans own guns? The CDC would use the data for "advocacy purposes." Well yes, they might use the data to determine if there are ways we could reduce gun deaths and injuries. I see this as another NRA fiction to keep us from collecting and analyzing better data on gun violence.

Bob: The assertion that the NRA has resisted data collection and analysis on guns and gun violence is derived from their opposition in 1996-97 to inclusion of new funding for the CDC to conduct research on gun violence as a public health issue. As part of the House of Representatives budget appropriations process for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, the full committee report for the appropriations bill contained a prohibition for the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the CDC "from engaging in any activities to advocate or promote gun control". In addition it cautioned CDC officials that it "does not believe that it is the role of the CDC to advocate or promote policies to advance gun control initiatives or to discourage responsible private gun ownership". The CDC was not constrained in its efforts to collect data on Cause of Death and Injury of all kinds and to conduct research on gunshot wounds and fatalities.

Gun Types

Bob: I think the bans currently in place since 1934 on certain types of guns (machine guns, grenade launchers, sawed off shotguns, etc., etc.) are sufficient. Also, it was the opinion of the Justice Department commissioned study done on the 1994 ban on "assault rifles" and 10+ round magazines that the law was ineffective in reducing crime ("An Updated Assessment of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban: Impacts on Gun Markets and Gun Violence, 1994-2003 - Report to the National Institute of Justice, United States Department of Justice, Jerry Lee Center of Criminology, University of Pennsylvania"). The number of cases in which criminals used a legally owned automatic weapon is virtually nil (only one that I have heard about - and he was a cop). Criminal users of prohibited weapons will be indifferent to more laws making them illegal. Magazine size is primarily a convenience for target shooters and practice sessions. Most hunters that I know of aren't interested in large magazines. The most popular high powered hunting rifles are bolt action. The 50 caliber rifle used in "The American Sniper" movie is a single shot bolt action rifle. Law enforcement and the military would be the most impacted by elimination of 10+ round magazines. Law enforcement's training is that if confronted with a threat to your life, shoot to kill and keep shooting until the threat is eliminated (assuming other tactics such as pepper spray or TASER are not possible). Depending on the situation, accuracy, and size/determination of the threat, a 10-12 round magazine is considered reasonable. I doubt if gun manufacturers care much about magazine size because the cost of a magazine is relatively small compared to the cost of the semi-automatic firearm, and most semi-automatic rifles and shotguns with detachable magazines don't care what size magazine is plugged into them. In fact, they would probably wind up selling more of the smaller capacity magazines to make up for the inability to sell larger ones.

Elliott: I do not want any restrictions on the guns carried by the police or military to do their jobs. Let them decide. However, I see no reason for civilians to carry any guns that shoot more than 10 bullets before having to reload. So someone at a shooting range has to pause after shooting 10 bullets to reload? Please. And a hunter needs to be able to take more than 10 shots to kill its prey? I view these arguments as utter nonsense. Guns are dangerous. Citizens do not need guns that shoot more than 10 bullets before reloading. Most homicides result from the use of handguns. Do citizens need the right to own handguns? What for? Opposition is simply part of the NRA strategy to block any sort of restrictions on guns, whether or not in they are in the public interest.

I believe you and I could agree on a useful program for gun law reforms. But your organization, the NRA, would block it.

Bob: I agree that we could come up with some mutually agreeable recommendations that would have some basis in logic and some chance to be effective. However, I take a dim view of recommendations based on an external assessment of what an individual needs or doesn't need. It may be true that a target shooter doesn't "need" more than a 10 round magazine. I don't "need" a car that has more than 300 horsepower or a motorcycle that can go 100 mph. But in the absence of a legitimate and compelling public interest, I do not recognize the right of a government bureaucrat to define my needs or limit my choices.

Elliott: Laws are regularly imposed to protect public safety. You are allowed to purchase cars with a large engine. It is against the law to drive it over 75 miles per hour in any state. Nobody seems to object. Reducing gun deaths is a compelling public interest. Eliminating guns not needed by the less than 5% of Americans that are hunters would seem appropriate.

The NRA always says such regulations would make no difference. Well, you have to start somewhere. Gun deaths are through the roof in Chicago. Why? Illinois has pretty tight gun laws?? The answer is that gun brokers illegally buy in Indiana (lax enforcement) and sell Chicago.

Bob: The following specific suggestions are offered as potential Federal measures that I believe would target the most common instances of gun violence in each of four areas: 1. Mental illness, 2. Drug/gang related activity in major urban areas, 3. Mass shootings, and 4. Suicides. I do not believe any of these suggestions would create any additional costs or constraints on lawful gun owners.

  1. Incentivize the states to standardize and submit in a timely fashion complete criminal and mental health data to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) in order for it to be as effective as possible. Establishment of a requirement on the states to do this by the federal government is probably not possible since the federal government is limited in its authority over the states. In the absence of a national gun registry, this provision is of limited utility in preventing criminal use of guns. However, its effectiveness could be maximized by improving the quality, consistency and timely submittal of state data - especially mental health data. Some states consider federal HIPAA regulations to be a barrier to the exchange of mental health data. Federal relaxation of these regulations could improve the effectiveness of the NICS system regarding mentally unstable individuals. This provision is similar to one in the 2013 Manchin -Toomey bill.

  2. Define a mechanism and a set of standards for assessing conduct indicative of a mental condition which constitutes a threat to the individual or others. This authority and assessment would be an alternative to being adjudicated as a mentally defective "prohibited person". The intent is that this mechanism could be considered within acceptable bounds of civil liberties while still providing "due process". This provision is also similar to one in the 2013 Manchin-Toomey bill.

  3. Modify civil service agreements as necessary to define and implement competency standards for all government personnel handling NICS data and all federal firearms related actions, licenses, data, etc. Beyond being what should be an implicit requirement for all civil service employees, it is especially important in this case because failure to perform their responsibilities results in denial of a constitutionally protected right. Additionally, failure to process a NICS background check within 72 hours results in an automatic approval. In the recent Charleston, SC mass shooting case, the shooter legally obtained his firearm because the FBI did not meet this requirement. Government bureaucracies are notoriously delinquent in complying with specific statutory time requirements to process firearm licenses, background checks, etc. Inadequate staffing of federal and state firearm related government agencies is a frequently used device to limit or retard firearm processing when gun control legislation is difficult or politically dangerous to pass.

  4. Establish a reward system for information leading to arrest and conviction of anyone who has made statements threatening gun violence or taken actions indicating a plan for a mass shooting. Incorporate criminal penalties for false or malicious reporting. Establish a reward system for information leading to arrest and conviction of anyone obtaining or in possession of a firearm illegally. Incorporate criminal penalties for false or malicious reporting.

  5. Implement guidelines for a New York City style of "Stop and Frisk" in all urban areas with crime rates above a specified level.

  6. Propose federal standards for consideration by the states for an elective medical end of life option for terminally ill patients who would otherwise consider suicide by gun as their only option. The goal would be for as many states as possible to establish dignified end of life alternatives to those who contemplate suicide by gun. In states that permit legal sanctions against individuals that attempt suicide, include the individual on the NICS list of prohibited persons for purchase of firearms, confiscate any firearms they may have, and arrange for counseling for the individual.

It is critical to stipulate that the above suggested measures push the limits of government intrusion into individual civil liberties. Therefore, court tests will be necessary to validate that they are reasonable measures consistent with a compelling government interest to protect the population,

Elliott: I think chasing after metal health data to link to gun violence is a dead end. Let's just get a criminal background check system to work properly.

Bob: This position surprises me. Mass shooting events are the subject of grossly disproportionate reporting in the media relative to the virtually unreported constant carnage in urban, inner city areas. Despite fatalities being orders of magnitude less than inner city drug and gang related shootings, mass shooting events get 24/7 nonstop sensational coverage including all manner of speculation, hyperbole, and emotional appeal for measures that ensure "this will never happen again". And virtually all of these instances are attributed to mentally ill or unstable individuals who exhibited "red flags" but were not prevented from having guns because they were not adjudicated to be mentally defective or a threat to themselves or others. The NRA is criticized for only saying "no" to gun control provisions. What do you recommend to address this void?

Elliott: There are two reasons I oppose an "enhanced" collection of mental health data. I remember that not too long ago, mental health problems were used to incarcerate large numbers of Americans. We all have some degree of mental health problems and I do not want government employees making mental health judgments. I also oppose mental health data collection because I do not believe it will help much in preventing gun deaths. It is one thing to decide someone is mentally ill after the fact, it is something else to use such data to predict future acts. Let's start by getting background data on all gun purchasers shared

I would take your suggestion for terminally people further. I would like the right to decide when and how to die, even if I am not terminally ill.


Bob: I have come to accept as reality that there is no argument I can offer that will dissuade those who strongly advocate outlawing or severely restricting gun ownership. And I respect anyone's right to view guns with as much distaste and emotion as they would like. But being an incorrigible engineer, I am compelled to respond as much as I am able with logic based on verifiable fact when it comes to addressing the implication that there is a direct causal relationship between ownership of a gun and violent criminal activity; or that an ordinary good citizen's possession of a firearm constitutes a threat to anyone. So please consider the following thought relative to the prevention of homicides by eliminating firearms[1]:

  • 7,939 people were murdered by handguns;

  • 1,589 people were murdered by knives or cutting instruments (including machetes);

  • 916 people were murdered with rifles, shotguns or other guns;

  • 678 people were murdered with personal weapons (hands, fists, feet, etc. and pushed);

  • 518 people were murdered by hammers and blunt instruments.

After guns have been outlawed, we can outlaw knives and cutting instruments. Then we can focus on hammers and blunt instruments. But what do we do when we get to hands, fists, and feet? The best outcome of such an exercise would be that it would force us to come to grips with the real problem - the owners of the fists.

Elliott: The gun issue should be seen in the context of other dangers and what we do about them. Consider first smoking and drinking - these are allowed despite their health risks with little more than age limits on purchases. Why are they allowed? After all, they are well-documented killers. They are allowed because a large portion of citizens want to consume them - 67% of Americans drink and 16% smoke.

We also know that driving and drugs are killers. These are allowed because their benefits are seen as outweighing their costs. Driving is seen as a necessary form of transport while drugs have important health benefits. But in both cases, there are restrictions in place. People are not allowed to drive unless they pass driving tests and their cars are both registered and insured.

Consider now guns. They are also well-documented killers. But unlike the above, there are, aside from the police, very few legal users. Only 4.6% of the US population now hunts, down from 8.1% in 1958.[2]

So this small group, supported by the NRA that is in turn supported by gun producers, is blocking sensible precautions such as background checks on gun purchasers. As I have said above, this is outrageous and is only happening because US democracy is broken.

[1] 2012 FBI US Uniform Crime Report/Murder Victims by Weapon.


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