Industry and gun owner groups have become so focused on interpreting the Second Amendment and their defensive, victim-status posture of “the government is out to get us” that they’ve succumbed to reacting instead of deliberate, forward-thinking planning to grow their business, attract new people to shooting/hunting as a recreational sport, keep guns away from the criminals and enhance firearm safety across the country. This thing of “Oh nooooooo Mr. Bill, our rights are in danger!” has blinded industry leaders to the very thing that can save the industry from being regulated out of existence and make gun ownership palatable to all but the most virulent anti-gun folks.
Think about it. What’s the true number one issue the industry faces? It’s not really constitutional-manipulation (which takes forever given the way our government is designed to function), nor is it really child safety since absolutely no gun owner would ever argue against always striving to ensure the safety of the innocent and vulnerable. No, when it comes to firearms, the big deal for the non-gun buying public is crime: outlaw guns and crime will drop they say. It doesn’t matter if that is true or not; what matters is they wholeheartedly believe it.
Background checks at the point-of-sale via the FBI database NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) or a state substitute set up for instant checks, is an effective way to ensure that a convicted felon, a fugitive, a wife-beater, or a person with mental issues among others cannot buy a firearm. (It would be more effective if all states would enact laws that required all policing agencies and states to share all of their data with the NICS and each other – 15 years post-9/11 and we still have to ask law enforcement agencies to share data). Currently, like with all laws affecting gun ownership, states are all over the place with how they approach this. For example, some states, like New Mexico, require a NICS check whenever you purchase a firearm from an federal firearm licensed (FFL) dealer. Other states have exceptions; for example Texas runs the check to issue a CHL (Concealed Handgun License), and then that CHL serves as a permit to buy firearms in Texas without re-running a background check. How possible do you think it might be to obtain a CHL as a Texas resident, commit a crime the next day, be a known fugitive, but because the FFL will sell you a pistol given your valid in-hand CHL card, also be a criminal who legally buys a gun?
Or take the “gun show loophole.” This is the exception to the 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act (FOPA) that allows for the occasional private party sale. The intent of the law was partly to recognize that you could be a father who gives his son a rifle, or a collector selling an item that doesn’t suit her collection in order to get the money to buy something that does, or the family selling assets like a complete gun collection given the owner is deceased; in other words, you aren’t making your living selling firearms. But there is this phenomena of private party sellers who do make a living selling guns at gun shows, but without an FFL. These folks are effectively unlicensed dealers who can sell to anyone, with no background check, no verification of age, and no verification of residency. And my reading of this says that they are likely in violation of the law too by buying and selling to people from other states, although no one ever seems to check. While I’m sure that most private party sellers at shows do make a good faith effort to make sure the buyer is truly eligible, it seems reasonable to believe that some don’t, or perhaps just really aren’t good judges of character and inadvertently sell to a felon and budding miscreant.
Many buyers would prefer to buy private party because they think that a background check means the government knows what gun they just acquired. It pays to know your state laws because most states don’t do this (California is one state that does). Without question, there is no national registry. Plain and simple, buying a gun from an FFL doesn’t put your name on some Washington, DC-list for later use against you. But because of this fear, many gun owners do not support the idea of universal background checks.
Industry and gun owner groups will never be able to bring themselves to call for universal background checks for all sales; an industry that perceives itself as under threat is not in the frame of mind to ask for more laws. It’s a shame, because universal background checks would go a long way to quelling this belief that criminals can openly obtain guns just by walking into a store, gun show or trawling a Facebook gun sales group and buying one.
But there is another approach. A way that achieves the same thing, does it as an industry initiative to police itself in a way that would blunt the ability of lawmakers to propose restrictive-to-guns bills that would win them reelection and public fame given that there would be no political power/electoral return to proposing a bill to a problem already solved.
Want proof? All-terrain-vehicles (ATVs): when first released, ATVs were inherently unstable 3-wheeled recreational vehicles. The injury and death rate from their use was alarming. But the industry did something smart. First, they admitted that the design of 3-wheels was unstable and re-introduced the product with 4-wheels. Next, they accepted a 10-year consent decree with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to set age/size guidelines, have permanent safety labeling on each unit regarding age/size, safe operation and riding gear, and to provide free rider-training to all dealer purchases. The consent decree expired in 1997, but to this day, dealers will not sell you an adult-sized ATV for your child, all units are permanently labeled with safety information, and if you buy an ATV from a dealer, you will get a call from the ATV Safety Institute to schedule you into a free rider-training class. By hitting all those marks, the ATV industry has done everything it can to educate riders and keep them safe, as well as to prevent new burdensome regulation and laws. ATV injury and death rates are still rather shocking, but each time the media or a legislator investigates the issue, they see that the industry is doing absolutely everything it can, that there isn’t any new law that would accomplish anything more. When later, ATVs and off-highway vehicles came under attack for tearing up public lands? The industry again proactively began working with states to create ATV and mixed-use trails – in other words they accepted the problem as real and did something about it rather than just lobby the government to “stay off our backs.”
Can self-regulation really work? Can an industry really police itself? I think so. Any political scientist like myself can tell you that social norms matter more than laws when it comes to coordinating behavior – habit, expectations and tradition are stronger regulators of behavior than laws. Funnily enough, there is a private party sale arena that demonstrates that gun owners have the propensity to self-regulate. There are a plethora of Facebook gun groups like this one organized by city/state to facilitate private party sales. Individuals are buying/selling/trading one gun at a time, legally given that no one is making a living doing this. There’s some high-volume churn of firearms going on. And you’ve got to assume that not all participants are on the up and up. Like with anything, most are, but it’s both a caveat emptor and caveat venditor situation. And yet if you look, members will post when they’ve had a good experience with someone. They’ll post if they see a name they recognize in the local media who was arrested so group owners can ban that user from the group. They are paying attention to who is buying and selling with the intent of not selling to criminals and others restricted from gun-ownership.
There’s no point in burying our heads in the sand. We here in Las Cruces, NM live in borderlandia; we have an interest in not falling victim to or inadvertently assisting the criminal network operating between the US and Mexico. We have an interest in maintaining legal gun sales to shooting enthusiasts and hunters. Private party sales at scale are concerning because it’s lunacy to think that criminals and other baddies aren’t using that as an easy way to traffick in firearms or buy them in service of pursing criminal intent. NICS is an incomplete database because not all state records are included. Who do you want to solve this? What kind of solution do you want, an imposed one or one that respects the habits and traditions of gun owners and firearm manufacturers? I want the latter and this is a challenge to us to find those solutions. Other industries have done it and ours can too. But the first step is realizing that we have to choose the offensive position, and leave the defensive posture used here-to-date behind.