Thursday, February 13, 2014

Stemming the Flow of Guns

Kudos to Nancy de Pastino and Missoula Mayor John Engen, who have a fine column  about gun violence in yesterday's Missoulian. If you haven’t read it, you should. As they have before, they make the case for enhanced background checks for gun buyers, and if history is any guide, they will once again pop open a raging debate about whether or not such checks work.

In that debate, gun rights advocates argue that no background check can ever prevent the explosions of murderous violence that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary or Virginia Tech or Columbine High. The deranged men who commit such murders will always be able to get their hands on weapons if they are just determined enough. After all, at Sandy Hook, Adam Lanza took the rifle and pistols he used to kill twenty children from his mother’s perfectly legal gun collection. How can you stop that? How will background checks help? 

The problem here is that as horrifying and unpredictable and seemingly inevitable as these mass shootings are, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Every day, all across this country, on average seven kids are killed by gunfire; every three days, the death toll from Sandy Hook is repeated. Every day, all across this country, guns are used in robberies, car-jackings, drive-by shootings and other crimes.

Now some of the guns used to commit these crimes were no doubt legally purchased by the shooters. Some of them no doubt were stolen, or taken from a family gun locker. But the fact remains that a very large number of the guns used in the commission of crimes and seized by the police were once legally purchased and subsequently sold to somebody who couldn’t pass a background check. Every day, all across this country, at gun shows or through private sales or deals made on the street, guns leave the hands of responsible gun owners and fall into the hands of criminals and shooters.

And Montanans are complicit in this process. Back in 2009, the Washington Post published an investigation of the flow of guns from legal purchasers to criminals. Not surprisingly, a lot of this flow crosses state lines. Guns are exported from states where legal purchase is pretty easy to the streets of cities where purchase is difficult; from Virginia, for example, to Washington D.C, or New York City.

Or from Montana to Los Angeles.

Yes. Montana is a big net exporter of guns that were purchased legally here and ended up being used in a crime somewhere else. On a per capita basis, Montana is the twelfth biggest exporter in the nation.

We talk a lot about the Second Amendment in Montana. About gun rights. About guns and the Montana way of life. About standing your ground. About how we believe in responsible gun ownership. Gun rights advocates are a powerful political force, who folks like de Pastino and the mayor take on at their peril. We will no doubt be debating these issues and values for years to come. But it is a flat out mystery to me how any state can pride itself on its commitment to a sane gun culture and yet tolerate a hemorrhage of legal guns into criminal hands, for the want of a simple background check. 

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