Once again, the National Rifle Association's annual convention is coming to Pittsburgh, this time promising "acres of gear and guns." Attendees surely will find all of that and more. But one thing they won't get from the NRA is any sort of dialogue about how to address the problem of gun violence in our country.
As someone whose job it is to investigate and prosecute firearms violations, and as someone who once thought the NRA supported law enforcement, I have come to realize that the NRA takes every chance it gets to stymie even reasonable efforts to combat gun violence.
How else can one view the NRA's opposition to the release of gun trace data, for example?
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms maintains a database which could provide a wide variety of valuable trace information with just a few keystrokes. But the NRA's allies in Congress have successfully passed laws which limit the data that may be released to law enforcement agencies.
The catch is that each agency may receive information only about its own gun recoveries and traces. So, for instance, Pittsburgh police cannot view information on gun recoveries and traces in the many boroughs that surround the city. Since gun traffickers and other violators do not respect municipal or state borders, it is puzzling that the NRA would push for laws that serve only to hamper efforts at investigation and interagency intelligence gathering.
The public is even more in the dark. Do you, as a resident of Pennsylvania, want to know how many guns were recovered and traced last year in your state? That's easy -- just gather the chiefs of Pennsylvania's 1,150-odd police departments in a big room and have them cobble together the trace data from their respective agencies.
Want a breakdown of how many handguns, shotguns and rifles were recovered? Ditto. Because, while the NRA is understandably against releasing individual gun owners' names, it also opposes the public dissemination of even the most basic statistical data on gun recoveries.
Now, why would an organization that claims to be a friend to law enforcement want Congress to hide trace data from both the police and the citizens they protect?
The answer is simply that the NRA and the elected representatives it finances have decided it's none of our business. Furthermore, they seek to blur the big picture of gun violence in this country, specifically as it relates to how guns get to the street. They are afraid that if you knew where crime guns really came from, you might demand laws and policies that would help the government actually do something about it.
Pro-gun forces have successfully convinced many Americans that crime guns are supplied by unseen, shadowy networks of Hollywood-style gun smugglers conducting late-night, multi-gun transactions in the back streets of our inner cities. They want us to believe that no matter how hard we try, we'll never stop this illicit flow of guns, so we have to arm ourselves and fight fire with fire.
In reality, up to half of all crime guns are supplied piecemeal by individual straw purchasers. These are folks without criminal records who purchase guns on behalf of felons and other prohibited persons, usually in exchange for drugs or cash.
The true number of straw-purchased guns is unknown because it is not an easy crime to detect. Even when a straw purchase is uncovered, proving it can be rather difficult; often the only witnesses are the purchaser and the person who received the gun, therefore most cases depend upon a confession or a virtual mountain of circumstantial evidence.
Either way, a straw purchase is almost always detected after the gun has been transferred to a felon and recovered in a crime -- which is too late if that gun was used to hurt someone. Greater law enforcement access to trace data could help identify straw buyers before they put additional guns on the street, but the NRA made sure that can't happen.
And where does the other half of crime guns come from?
Many come from careless people who leave their firearms in parked cars while they attend Steelers games, or in their remote and poorly secured hunting cabins, or in the nightstand while they are at work or out of town. Or perhaps they allow their drug-addicted relative easy access to their guns.
Whatever the case, these improperly stored firearms are stolen by thieves and burglars, funneled to gang members and drug dealers, then ultimately used to commit many of the 11,000 gun-related homicides, 190,000 armed robberies and 180,000 non-fatal shootings that occur each year in this country. There are hundreds of thousands of such thefts reported every year, and I know from experience that far more go unreported.
In 10 years of focusing exclusively on gun crime, I can count on one hand, with fingers to spare, those cases in which a firearm was stolen despite being properly stored in an immovable safe. The NRA is surely aware that stolen guns are a huge problem, yet at this weekend's convention you would be unlikely to see much emphasis on the importance of securing one's firearms to prevent them from being stolen and used in crimes. After all, you are only required to be a law-abiding gun owner; the government can't require you to be a responsible one. If your unsecured gun is stolen, just file an insurance claim and buy a new one.
The NRA is unwilling to acknowledge that the gun violence problem in this country is, in large part, a gun access problem; that is, people who should not have guns are getting them anyway.
The NRA's answer to gun crime has always been purely reactive: If someone is caught carrying a gun illegally, arrest and convict him. If a gun is stolen and traded for drugs, arrest and convict the criminal who pilfered it. I'm fine with all of that, but prosecuting gun possessors and thieves after the fact does nothing to prevent guns from getting out there in the first place. There has to be more to it than this.
Yet the NRA vehemently opposes every policy that could help law enforcement more easily and efficiently investigate and disrupt the illegal firearms trade. And it has somehow convinced otherwise reasonable people that every law which places an additional obstacle between a criminal and a gun is a part of a government gun-grabbing conspiracy designed to take away the rights of gun owners.
So I have to ask the NRA's leaders, what do you propose? Please tell us, what measures do you believe can help drastically reduce the number of guns that fall into the wrong hands? What suggestions do you have that go beyond catching bad guys with guns and locking them up after the damage has been done?
Because, I have to tell you, in my 18 years of law enforcement, I've seen that done to death, yet bodies continue falling, corner stores are still being held up and lately cops are getting shot more than ever. So give me something I can use. How do you suggest we keep guns away from people before they have a chance to threaten, rob, shoot and kill? And what role and responsibilities do you see for law-abiding gun owners in this effort?
I won't hold my breath awaiting proposals, for the NRA has made clear it does not want the public to concern itself with how violent criminals gain access to guns. It is enough for us to know that these violent criminals are out there, they pose a grave threat and they can only be stopped by -- you guessed it -- more and bigger guns.
The NRA's "solution" is for you to stock up on guns and gear and arm yourself to the teeth. Oh, and while your wallet is already out, how about sending the NRA a few bucks so they can fight to protect your rights?
I would urge people out there not to play into the NRA's hands. But if you do, please do us all the favor of securing any guns you buy. We wouldn't want them to become part of that top-secret trace data.
Joseph Bielevicz is a detective with the Pittsburgh Police Firearms Tracking Unit.