Garen Wintemute, an emergency physician and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis, is a pioneer in the study of gun violence as a public health issue. In his latest report, he argues that background checks should be required not just for licensed dealers, but for the roughly 40 percent of firearms sales that take place via private parties. That would mean requiring background checks for purchases at gun shows as well as for all sales between individuals.
Closing the "gun show loophole" alone isn't enough, Wintemute says, because the shows account for only a small percentage of private sales. Universal background checks are among the measures being considered by Congress in the wake of the Newtown massacre. Other proposals would ban assault weapons, impose tougher penalties for people who buy guns illegally for others, and give schools money to beef up safety and security. (A Senate panel has approved proposals involving several of these items.) I spoke with Wintermute about internet gun sales, whether something tough might actually make it through Congress, and how it is that a guy can look for all the world like a major gun dealer yet claim he isn't one.
Lilly Fowler: How did you get interested in gun violence?
Garen Wintemute: I was an ER doctor in the Sacramento area and was interested in preventing the sorts of injuries that I was seeing. I was aware of the fact that the vast majority of people who die from gunshot wounds die where they are shot. It doesn't matter how good the medical care is. So if I as a clinician want to make the biggest inroads, I need to work on preventing them from being shot in the first place.
The disparity between the size of the problem and the number of people researching it is unique. Here is a health problem that causes more than 30,000 deaths a year. There are probably somewhere between double and triple that number of permanently disabling injuries. And yet in the entire country, counting all academic disciplines together, there are fewer than a dozen experienced, active researchers in the field trying to figure out what to do about it. If we were talking about any other health problem, that simply would not be a tolerable situation.
LF: Will you briefly describe your recent report and its recommendations?
"Something like 40 percent" of all US firearm buys, and at least 80 percent of those made with criminal intent, are between private parties.
GW: We work very hard to prevent prohibited people, most of whom are thought to be at high risk for doing crime, from acquiring firearms. Everybody thinks that it is a good idea. But we do that only when the firearm is being acquired from a licensed retailer. We know based on several studies that something like 40 percent of all firearm acquisitions in the United States, and at an absolute minimum 80 percent of acquisitions made with criminal intent, are made from private parties.
If I buy a gun from a licensed retailer I have to show my identification. I have to fill out a lengthy form and certify that I'm not a prohibited person and I'm buying a gun for myself. The retailer has to initiate a background check. And obviously I can't acquire that gun if I fail. But [in most states] I can buy that same gun from a private party and none of those safeguards applies. If I am prohibited person, the private parties who sell me a gun commit a crime only if, at the time they sell it to me, they have reasonable cause to believe that I'm a prohibited person.
I have done field research at close to 80 gun shows all over the country. A private party vendor might have a table with 50 guns on it and a little sign that simply says, "private sale." And everybody knows exactly what that means. It means there will be no record keeping, no background check. But it also means, "I won't ask questions and don't you volunteer any incriminating information." That's how the system works.
Gun shows are where you can see it happening, but if you ask people where they buy their guns, it's clear that gun shows themselves account for a relatively small percentage [between 4 percent and 8 percent] of private party gun sales. I bring all this up, because people talk about closing the gun show loophole as an approach to this whole problem—and closing the gun show loophole by itself would just be a waste of time.
LF: What's the difference between the guy with the "private sale" sign and a retail outlet?
GW: If you are engaged in the business of buying and selling firearms, then you have to have a license. But in the mid-1980s Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, a piece of legislation known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act that specifically made as ambiguous as possible the definition of what it meant to be engaged in the business. The upshot was that you could go to a gun show and see people who have elaborate displays and hundreds of guns, and they could claim just to be collectors or hobbyists, and get away with it.
LF: Some states have already adopted the background checks you're recommending. What's happened in those states?
GW: There are six states that require a background check and a permanent record for essentially all transfers of firearms. [California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—on March 15, New York becomes the seventh.]
In California, we've had a comprehensive policy in place for more than 20 years. It does not paralyze commerce in firearms. We move more than 600,000 guns a year through that system. The state's rates of firearm violence are below average. I can't say what that's attributable to, but we do know this policy clearly interferes with the movement of firearms from the legal market to the illegal market. There's a yardstick that's called "time to crime"—the time between a gun's retail sale and its recovery by law enforcement after it's been used in a crime. In most states, guns that are less than three years old account for a very large percentage of guns used in crime. Here in California that is much less true. It's not perfect, it doesn't work all the time, but there's a clear net effect in disrupting criminal gun commerce.
The new development here is the internet. I can sit at my own breakfast table and go shopping for guns, and I don't have to go to a gun show. We can arrange to meet at someone's house, or a McDonald's parking lot—it doesn't matter. That's completely off the radar.