Posted 8/12/19


Stop with the tangential! Gun lethality is, first and foremost, about the projectile

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Many years ago, while working as an ATF agent in Phoenix, I became acquainted with a physician whose name came up during one of my investigations. Dr. John, an avid hunter and target shooter, was unmoved when I explained that a man with whom he traded guns was an unlicensed dealer, and that local police had been seizing guns that went through him from thugs on the street.

     That’s how most trafficking casework begins. Agents follow the paper trail from a gun’s manufacturer to its initial retailer, then “hit the streets” to find out how it wound up in the wrong hands. Illegal “street dealers” often get guns one at a time from individuals such as Dr. John. Some deploy “straw buyers” to buy them in stores. Corrupt licensees are often in the mix, falsifying records and supplying firearms in quantity “out the back door.”

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     Best I knew Dr. John had committed no crime. He was cordial and helpful and we eventually got to know one another quite well. Possibly too well. On my final visit I knocked on the door of his home. Dr. John greeted me warmly. Then with a flourish he pointed to the floor. Somewhere below, he proudly announced, lay the pistol that Big Brother wouldn’t get when they came for his guns.

     I, too, had once enjoyed firing guns. Proficiency with a firearm, especially a powerful semi-automatic, offers many personal rewards, from the tangible pleasure of operating an intricate gadget to the thrills of accurately striking targets at range. It may be pop psychology, but some also seem to find in guns a sense of power and autonomy that is otherwise lacking.

     Perhaps all the above applied to Dr. John, perhaps not. Still, we both knew that whether he really buried a gun wasn’t the point. His diatribe about confiscation was meant to signal his commitment to that particular ideological space where Government can’t be trusted and it’s ultimately everyone for themselves.

     Dr. John’s point of view wasn’t uncommon in Arizona nor in Montana, where I was later posted. Yet while neither I nor my colleagues considered rugged individualism inherently dangerous, extremist baggage occasionally made threat assessments tricky. How should one deal with the eccentric, reportedly unstable loners who hole up in remote mountain cabins? (One turned out to be the Unabomber.)

     Yet when it comes to guns, commercialism confounds things. My first trial in Phoenix involved an unlicensed older gentleman who bought handguns in quantity from a local retailer, then resold them for a tidy profit at gun shows, no paperwork or ID needed. In his opinion, that’s how the good Lord decreed guns ought to be dispensed, and if some wound up with criminals, as a police officer testified, that was simply a cost of liberty.

     I was pleased that jurors ultimately found the man guilty. It didn’t happen quickly, as several were conflicted about pinning a felony on a seemingly well-intended entrepreneur.

     Out-and-out greed by commercial gun stores was the subtext for my final years with ATF, when I supervised a trafficking squad in Los Angeles. Methodically tracing guns recovered by police led us to an array of licensed dealers who sold guns under-the-table to street marketers. My published research paper discussed the appalling contribution of such practices to street crime. One instance, the murder of an LAPD officer, stuck with me through the years. An affecting example of how making a buck can lead so-called “businesspersons” to make terrible decisions, it eventually inspired a screenplay. Alas, the lack of a happy ending probably dooms it in Hollywood-land.

     Guns aren’t only about street crime. Waves of mass shootings, most recently in Dayton and El Paso, have renewed attention on assault weapons. These ballistically-formidable darlings of the gun culture fire projectiles that easily penetrate so-called “bulletproof” vests. When their bullets pierce flesh they create massive wound cavities, shattering blood vessels and pulverizing nearby organs, with predictable consequences. (Vincent Di Maio’s “Gunshot Wounds” is the standard work on the subject.)

     According to the FBI, 510 police officers were feloniously murdered during the past decade. Gunfire claimed 472 officer lives, including 336 by handgun and 108 by rifle. Two rifle calibers characteristic of assault-style weapons, .223/5.56 and 7.62, were responsible for sixty-five deaths. Twenty-one officers were killed by rounds that penetrated their body armor; all but one of these fatalities was caused by a rifle.

     When it comes to what’s available to the hateful, we’re talking lethality, on steroids. There’s a good reason why police have increasingly turned to armored cars.

     But wait: haven’t many states banned assault weapons? Yes, but. Their go-by, the lapsed 1994 Federal ban, limited magazines to ten rounds and prohibited external baubles such as handgrips. Yet it was silent about what really drives lethality – ballistics. Every state that’s dared to institute a “ban” has followed suit.


     For a simple reason. Focusing on ballistics would effectively doom the assault-style pistols and rifles that enthusiasts cherish. That would drive the NRA berserk and, not incidentally, threaten the survival of the firearms industry, whose profits depend on cranking out ever-more-lethal hardware. Instead, lawmakers boast about regulating peripheral aspects such as magazine capacity, bump stocks and the like. These “controls” are ridiculously easy to circumvent. Most recently, authorities breathlessly announced that Connor Betts, who perpetrated the Dayton massacre, bought a readily-available “shoulder brace” to help steady the so-called .223 “pistol” he legally purchased, thus transforming it into an illegal short-barreled rifle. And consider the December 2015 San Bernardino massacre in supposedly gun-stern California, where a married couple murdered fourteen and wounded twenty with a pair of state-legal AR-15 clones, both modified to increase ammunition capacity, a simple process that’s clearly described online.

     In any event, whether high-powered weapons are short or long, or have bump stocks or extended magazines, their killing power centers on ballistics. That’s clearly how the rest of the civilized world perceives it. In 1988, one year after an angry Hungerford man used a handgun and two rifles to gun down sixteen persons, Britain banned all semi-automatic rifles beyond .22 rimfire. And despite its vibrant gun culture, New Zealand is presently buying back semi-auto rifles, which were largely banned after this year’s murderous rampage in Christchurch.

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     But in our polarized land we prefer to make-believe. Consider, for example, the drive to expand the use of “red flag” laws, which empower judges to order gun seizures from the allegedly violence-prone. While there’s no question that dangerous characters shouldn’t have guns, liberty interests and practical issues unavoidably constrain the laws’ reach. While occasionally useful, they are certainly no answer to the gun massacres that bedevil society. Considering that many perpetrators obtain their guns legally, and that guns are readily available through the unofficial marketplace, neither are background checks.

     How to make a difference? We could devise a scale that emphasizes what really counts. Points (demerits) would be assessed for the factor that most directly affects lethality – ballistics. Secondary issues such as ammunition capacity, cyclic rate and accuracy at range could also be considered. Guns with high scores would be banned outright, while others might be subject to a range of controls. Of course, no system is perfect or immune to manipulation. Americans would have to set aside selfish preoccupations and cherished beliefs for the common good. Alas, given our tolerance for mass slaughter, the prognosis is not good.

UPDATE (10/26/19): Dick’s Sporting Goods sells guns. But it no longer sells assault-style weapons or high capacity magazines and requires all gun buyers to be at least 21. That decision was made by C.E.O. Ed Stack after the 2018 Parkland, Fla. high school massacre. He concedes these steps won’t eliminate all mass shootings. “But there will be less loss of life if an assault-style rifle isn’t used. And if we do all those things and we save one life, in my mind it’s all worth it.”

UPDATE (10/25/19): Undercover California state agents regularly watch California residents acquire California-illegal assault rifles at gun shows in Arizona and Nevada. Buyers are tailed when they return to California, where they are stopped and the loot is seized. “The...problem is that California has a 608-mile border with Nevada...and Nevada’s gun regulations are less stringent,” a prosecutor said.

UPDATE (9/20/19): According to Colt Firearms “a pretty sharp decline in rifle sales” and a “significant inventory buildup by our distributors” has led it to suspend production of civilian versions of the AR-15. Colt will focus on police and military orders, which, it says, are “absorbing all of Colt’s manufacturing capacity for rifles.”

UPDATE (9/6/19): Check out Jay’s op-ed about assault weapons bans in today’s Washington Post.

UPDATE (9/1/19): A male in his 30s armed with a rifle hijacked a mail truck and went on a shooting rampage in the West Texas cities of Odessa and Midland. He killed seven and wounded nineteen, including three officers, before police shot him dead.

UPDATE (8/15/19): A Philadelphia man who had served Federal prison time for being a felon with firearms fired repeated barrages at police serving a narcotics search warrant. Six officers sustained minor wounds. The suspect eventually surrendered. An AR-15 rifle and a handgun were recovered.

UPDATE (8/15/19): Authorities say that the gun used to kill CHP officer Moye (see below update) was a “ghost gun,” meaning untraceable. It was apparently built by completing a partially-machined lower receiver that can be legally bought without a serial number, then assembling it into a weapon using legally-available parts.

UPDATE (8/13/19):  On August 12 veteran California Highway Patrol officer Andre Moye, 34, was shot and killed and two colleagues were injured when a convicted felon whom officer Moye pulled over for a traffic violation opened fire with an “AR-15 style” rifle. Their assailant was reportedly a gang member who had served prison time for an armed assault.

UPDATE (8/12/19): Dayton gunman Connor Betts assembled his gun from legally-bought parts. Its upper receiver came from a friend, Ethan Kollie, who legally acquired it online. Kollie also bought the drum magazine and ballistic vest used by Betts.

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Want an assault weapons ban that works? Focus on ballistics.


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DNA’s Dandy, But What About Body Armor?

Posted 6/22/19, edited 6/26/19 & 8/14/19


An epidemic of police officer suicide raises the question: do guns cause violence?

     For Police Issues by Julius (Jay) Wachtel. Friday, June 14 was a very bad day for cops in the Big Apple. That date marked the third occasion this month in which a member of the force – in this tragic case, a 29-year old officer with six years on the job – would commit suicide with a gun.

     NYPD suffered four officer suicides in 2018, and four so far this year. Alarmingly, this month’s three took place within a single ten-day period. Reacting to the crisis, NYPD Commissioner James P. O’Neill called on his colleagues to use and promote the use of mental health resources:

    This is a mental-health crisis. And the NYPD & the law enforcement profession as a whole absolutely must take action. We must take care of each other; we must address this issue - now…There is no shame in seeking assistance from the many resources available, both inside and outside the department. Accepting help is never a sign of weakness - in fact, it’s a sign of great strength. Please, connect yourself or your friends and colleagues to the assistance that is so close by.

     Officer suicide is by no means a new phenomenon. Yet it’s never been officially tracked. (The FBI’s yearly Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted report only includes deaths due to criminal activity.) However, in 2016 the nonprofit “Blue Help” began systematically collecting information about episodes of police and correctional officer suicide. According to its website there were 142 officer suicides in 2016, 169 in 2017, 167 in 2018 and 92 so far this year. To compare, the FBI’s most recent LEOKA report indicates that 46 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in 2017, all but four by firearms. BlueHelp doesn’t presently publish manner of death, but firearms are presumably the predominant instrument in suicides as well.

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     Why do cops and correctional officers kill themselves? Suicide-prevention organizations and the professional and academic communities tend to emphasize the unique stressors of the criminal justice workplace. Here, for example, is what the NIJ Journal has said:

    Be it an officer patrolling a high-crime neighborhood in a big city, a small-town cop responding to a bar fight, or a homicide detective arriving at the scene of a multiple murder, the common factor in their jobs is stress. They work in environments where bad things happen…The same is true of corrections officers [who] work in confined societies that are, by definition, dangerous. The stress levels are so high that, in one study, 27 percent of officers reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

     Suicide isn’t just a problem in law enforcement. According to the Centers for Disease Control it’s the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. What drives individuals to end their own lives? In a recent online article, “Suicide Rising Across the U.S.,” the CDC cited seven reasons: relationship problems, substance use, personal crises, physical health problems, job/financial problems, criminal-legal problems and loss of housing. Guns got little play. While one table indicates that guns were used in 41 percent of suicides with mental health issues, and 55 percent where none were known to exist, they are explicitly mentioned only once, in a suggestion to safely store “medications and firearms to reduce access among people at risk.”

     It’s not just the Feds who seem reluctant to put the onus on guns. “Promising Strategies for Advancement in Knowledge of Suicide Risk Factors and Prevention,” a 2014 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, identified seventeen factors, including gender, occupation, personality disorders, financial stress and maltreatment in childhood. Firearms didn’t come up until the very last risk: “access to lethal means” (meaning, guns and pesticides.) The message that gun availability is but one of many hazards (and not necessarily the most pressing) seemed perfectly clear.

     Yet as CDC data clearly indicates, firearms are by far the most common means of suicide. In 2017, guns were responsible for about fifty-one percent (23,854) of the 47,173 suicides recorded that year. Suffocation came in second at 13,075. Poisoning, at 6,554, was third. (For a table grouped by age click here).

     Gun ownership and suicide rates are also closely linked. A 2008 Harvard study reported that the nine states lowest in gun ownership were also the nine lowest in suicide, and that the three with the most gun ownership were among the four with the most suicides. A comprehensive study of gun ownership and suicide between 1981-2013 found “a strong relationship between state-level firearm ownership and firearm suicide rates among both genders, and a relationship between firearm ownership and suicides by any means among male, but not female, individuals.” And a recent study of youth suicide reported that for each ten-percent increase in households with guns, suicide among the young increased nearly 27 percent.

     Gun violence, of course, goes way beyond suicide. According to the FBI, there were 16,617 murders and non-negligent manslaughters in 2017. Guns were used in 72.6 percent of these killings – about three in every four. Firearms were also used to commit 118,745 robberies (about 41 percent of the 319,356 reported that year) and 95,194 out of 741,756 aggravated assaults, or about one in every four.

     Compared to other wealthy Western-style democracies, America seems a uniquely violent place. A yearly global report, summarized by NPR, revealed that in 2017 America’s gun violence death rate of 4.43 per 100,000 pop. was fully nine times that of Canada and an astounding twenty-nine times higher than peaceable Denmark’s.

     Gun-control advocates argue that America’s infatuation with firearms has created a toxic environment. Here, for example, is Everytown for Gun Safety’s introduction to its sobering statistical compendium:

    Every day, 100 Americans are killed with guns and hundreds more are shot and injured. The effects of gun violence extend far beyond these casualties—gun violence shapes the lives of millions of Americans who witness it, know someone who was shot, or live in fear of the next shooting.

     But enough with numbers. Let’s give the problem a bit of real life (and death). Below are four of the gun-violence related headlines that appeared on the main page of the L.A. Times website on June 20. (It’s simply the day your blogger happened to look. Links were copied on the 21st., so wording may slightly differ):

Here are two more found on June 26:

     While some interventions seem to hold promise (see, for example, “Red Flag at Half Mast, Part II) “means restriction” – that is, reducing access to potential instruments of violence like guns – is the international gold standard in suicide reduction. Given what’s known, it’s a relatively small leap to argue that limiting access to guns would sharply reduce violence of all sorts. That’s what Great Britain did after the Hungerford Massacre. And why Great Britain, Australia, Japan and Norway enjoy freedom from the carnage that Americans tolerate as the cost of, well, being American.

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     But we’re not Great Britain. In the U.S., the proliferation of firearms, and the spectacular increase in their lethality, have dramatically affected the sociopolitical landscape. It’s changed the rules and assumptions that shape social interaction and altered the very nature of our existence. When an off-duty LAPD police officer shopping with his family at a Costco feels impelled to respond to an assault with a barrage of gunfire (and in so doing, not only kills his unarmed, mentally disturbed assailant but critically wounds both of the man’s parents, also unarmed) we know something really, really bad has happened.

     A threshold has been crossed. Guns cause violence. They’re not just “enablers” anymore.

UPDATE (10/6/19): A thirty-seven year old man flew to Florida from Norway. He banged on a front door, and when it was answered jumped out from the bushes. Meant as a birthday surprise, his actions startled his father-in-law, who shot him dead.

UPDATE (9/25/19): A grand jury refused to indict the off-duty LAPD officer who shot and killed the mentally disturbed man and wounded his parents. According to the D.A., the officer was assaulted while carrying a child, temporarily lost consciousness, and reacted accordingly.

UPDATE (9/25/19): Suicide rates are climbing in the military services. In the Navy, three off-base suicides by members of the same crew in five days - with two confirmed by gun - raised the number of suicides for their vessel to five in two years. According to the Defense Department, the annual suicide rate of service members is 20.1/1000,000, considerably higher than the civilian toll of 14/100,000.

UPDATE (9/18/19): For more than two months, the sister of NYPD’s ninth officer to commit suicide this year reportedly pleaded with his supervisors to take his gun away. NYPD is expanding its anti-suicide efforts, but other agencies such as LAPD have long fielded mental health units with suicide prevention as an explicit mission. Overcoming officer reluctance to seek help is always a problem.

UPDATE (9/13/19): A 60-year old Los Angeles Deputy City Attorney shot and killed his wife and teenage son at their home. He then shot himself dead. A daughter was also present but managed to flee. According to police “the recent loss of a loved one and ongoing health issues played a significant role.”

UPDATE (9/7/19): A newly-released study reports an increase in suicide rates in the U.S. between 1999-2016. Among its key findings is that “the presence of more gun shops was associated with an increase in county-level suicide rates in all county types except the most rural.” (It’s believed that household firearms ownership in the latter has already maxed out.)

UPDATE (9/3/19): A 14-year old Alabama boy admitted he shot and killed his father, stepmother and three siblings, ages six months, five years and six years, while everyone was home. He used a 9mm. pistol that, according to police, was “illegally” present at the residence.

UPDATE (8/15/19): One day after its unfathomable eighth suicide this year, a 25-year veteran NYPD officer brought the toll to nine. Reportedly, it’s the worst in a decade.

UPDATE (8/14/19): With the suicide by gun of a seven-year veteran, NYPD’s 2019 officer suicide toll now stands at eight. The officer’s best friend on the force was one of four who committed suicide in June.

UPDATE (7/28/19): On July 27 an as-yet unnamed sergeant became the seventh NYPD officer to commit suicide this year. Four suicides occurred in June, leading the agency to declare “a mental health crisis.”

UPDATE (6/27/19): An unnamed veteran NYPD detective (later named as officer Kevin Preiss) committed suicide yesterday. That brings the city’s tragic count to four officers in three weeks.

UPDATE (6/26/19): On June 19 Adel Ramos, 45, used a high-powered rifle to shoot and kill rookie Sacramento, Calif. police officer Tara O’Sullivan, 26, during a domestic violence call. Ramos, who had a record and an open warrant for domestic violence, had a shotgun, a handgun and two California-illegal AR-15 type rifles assembled from parts. This tragedy apparently led California Governor Gavin Newsom to change his mind and endorse expanding the State’s red flag laws to allow, among other things, “teachers, employers and co-workers to also petition the courts.”

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