There is a prolific myth in the United States which asserts that illegal firearms are easily obtainable. Bolstered by pro-gun lobbyists like the NRA, we are led to believe that, in most cities in America, there is a shady character on a particular street corner who will sell a gun to anybody, no questions asked, and because of this, there is no reason to eliminate loopholes allowing legal sales of firearms to, well, shady characters.
I’m a convicted felon who lives in the Bronx. Despite the nonviolent nature of my crimes—my convictions range from counterfeiting to felony shoplifting to possession of narcotics and drug paraphernalia—I cannot legally purchase a firearm. But given my somewhat shady past (not to mention the Bronx being the Bronx), I’m fairly certain that I could find a shady character close to home who will sell me a gun illegally—with three caveats: I’d risk being sent back to prison if caught, I would be putting my life in danger, and the price of weapons bought in such deals can be in excess of five times their retail cost. To put this in perspective, the assault weapon that Adam Lanza used to murder 20 children and six adults in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, which has a retail value of between $1,000 and $2,000, could cost between $5,000 and $10,000 on the streets.
My point is that purchasing firearms illegally should be an ordeal, and that effective background checks would be the first step in making it so. But what’s also pertinent is that Lanza was not a shady character with a long criminal history, and so would have had no experience moving in illicit circles. Background checks may have forced him to do so—to risk being arrested, robbed, or even killed in some dark alley for the substantial sum he’d have needed in order to buy a gun illegally.
There is, of course, a legitimate argument that background checks would not have prevented the Newtown massacre. This is likely true, but it’s also equally true that Lanza would have been denied easy access to legal firearms if his mother, the purchaser and owner of the assault weapons he used (and the first one to be murdered by Lanza) had utilized trigger locks and/or a gun safe—prudent safety features that any good NRA member would wholeheartedly advocate.
But let’s suppose for a minute that she did, and that Lanza, after failing a background check, would have had to purchase his weapons from some inner-city shady character. Can any levelheaded American honestly picture Adam Lanza, the spineless murderer of children, gaining the confidence of hardened, street-level arms dealers?
And let’s not stop there. What if Jared Loughner or James Holmes had to go out into the streets and risk their lives to obtain their weapons? Loughner killed six and injured 14 in Tucson, Arizona, in January 2011, and Holmes is responsible for murdering 12 and wounding 58 in Aurora, Colorado, in July of last year. It would have been an ordeal for them to buy illegal weapons simply because, like Lanza, they were not immersed in lawlessness.
When pro-gun lobbyists insist that it’s relatively easy for criminals to obtain firearms illegally, they have the luxury of categorizing Lanza, Loughner, and Holmes as criminals because it is after the fact of their crimes. But if you examine the scenario before the fact, it’s plain to see that you’re dealing with sick individuals whose criminal proclivities existed solely in their minds. Their first step in becoming criminals was getting their hands on guns and ammunition. Holmes and Loughner, in particular, were able to buy their weapons legally, passing the nominal background checks that currently exist with ease. So the question remains: how do we mold an effective law that would flag psychotics attempting to buy guns?
Every inmate admitted into the Arizona Department of Corrections is required to take a mandatory psych test. I took it on four separate occasions, one for each time I was sentenced to an Arizona state prison. The test runs about two hours and was quite proficient at identifying the mentally disturbed—especially those prone to violence. Incoming inmates who failed this test were automatically removed from general population and redirected for further psychological evaluation.
This simple test should be mandatory for any individual who wishes to purchase a firearm.
Which brings us back to the original question: how easy would it have been for Lanza, Loughner, and Holmes to have purchased their weapons illegally? In response I challenge any pro-gun lobbyist and/or pundit to pocket a few thousand dollars and head out alone into the streets of any major city, find a shady character, and purchase a firearm illegally in the same manner that a psychotic and/or criminal would have to do if we had effective background checks in place.
But all this is, of course, academic, since a watery background-check bill was recently defeated by the Senate, leaving me to wonder if there aren’t a lot more shady characters out there than we are led to believe.