A gangster's guide to gun control

A convicted murderer explains how he got guns, and what we can do to stop people like him in the future

By Alex Seitz-Wald

Published August 21, 2013 8:20PM (EDT)

  (AP/Philip Kamrass)
(AP/Philip Kamrass)

There aren't many things you'd want to consult a convicted murder on, but where to buy guns and how to stop people like him from buying more may be one of them. Fortunately, you don't need to visit the pen to ask one, as John Lennon wrote an essay on the topic for the Atlantic today.

Lennon was an all-around thug (drugs, robberies, home invasions, stolen credit cards, gun trafficking, etc.) in the 1990s when he got busted for killing a rival gangster who had been harassing a drug dealer who worked for Lennon. He's now serving 28 years to life in Attica. Lennon writes that he used all kind of guns -- "I created an extraordinary demand for the gun sector" -- because after he'd use one in a crime, he'd dispose of it to hide the evidence and then go out and buy another.

So where did all the guns come from? He explains:

Here’s how the game works. Criminals manipulate people with clean records – cash-strapped students, vulnerable women, drug addicts – to buy guns for them in states with minimal oversight, like Virginia. The criminal transports the guns to New York, then resells them or trades them for drugs that he’ll take back to Virginia to sell.

What's remarkable is that this is exactly what smart advocates of smart gun control have been saying all along. The NRA and their ideological allies love to point out that crime rates are often high in places that have strict gun control laws, and assume that this means strict laws lead to more crime. But what this actually shows is that the United States has a great interstate highway system that allows people to easily transport guns from places with weak rules to places with strict ones -- regulatory arbitrage --- and that cities have naturally higher crime rates and naturally have stricter gun laws.

And Lennon's prescription is also exactly the same as what congressional Democrats tried to pass earlier this year, before getting blocked by Republicans in the Senate: strict universal background checks. "Intensifying background checks will change the game and spook those who buy guns for criminals," Lennon writes, arguing that it will deter that cash-strapped student or drug addict from cooperating.

Without a doubt, experts say background checks are by far the most important policy item to reduce gun violence. Daniel Webster, the director of Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, came out earlier this year with a fascinating study that looked at the natural experiment created in Missouri when it repealed a law that required residents to pass a background check and get a permit before purchasing firearms. It turns out, controlling for other variables, homicide rates jumped a whopping 25 percent. From 1999 through 2007 the rate was pretty stable in the state at around 4.66 homicides per 100,000 residents. In 2008, the first full year after the repeal, the rate jumped to 6.23 per 100,000 residents, even as national crime rates remained steady or fell.

Lennon adds that the government should create a system that looks for suspicious patterns in purchases:

I used to shop with stolen credit cards, and when the employee at the register said, “I have to call the company,” I knew the jig was up. Similarly, it should raise red flags when a person who has never bought a gun suddenly buys five handguns. If the buyer is, for example, purchasing the guns for a drug dealer in the parking lot, he or she will be shaken.

This might raise the NRA's concern about a gun registry, but they don't really seem to have the moral leg to stand on when it comes to that anymore.

Interestingly, one thing Lennon does not suggest is an assault weapon ban. That's a policy that some Democrats pushed, but we argued wasn't particularly effective since it mostly banned guns based on their cosmetic features.

Alex Seitz-Wald

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