Friday, March 8, Captain Mark Kelly, former astronaut and Navy captain, and husband to former-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) posted a photo on his Facebook page in which he is filling out a background check form at a Tucson gun store. Captain Kelly purchased a .45 caliber handgun and AR-15 so-called 'assault rifle.' The AR-15 rifle has been the subject of controversy in the renewed gun control debate since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Gabrielle Giffords was also shot in an attempt on her life in Arizona in 2011; a tragedy in which seven people were killed. After Newtown, Giffords and Kelly created a non-profit organization focused on tightening gun control.
Many had hoped that Giffords and Kelly would be voices of sanity in the gun debate, which is so often dominated by emotion, sensationalism, and empty political rhetoric and dumbed down, trite cliché sound bytes. Unfortunately, as their Senate testimony and Facebook posts demonstrate, they are failing to offer a reasonable voice to the debate on gun control or raising awareness for genuine solutions to gun violence, instead opting for political rhetoric, misinformation and cliché sound byte that is unlikely to actually help others.
Exhibit A: Kelly posted the picture of himself buying the guns with this caption:
I just had a background check a few days ago when I went to my local gun store to buy a 45. As I was leaving, I noticed a used AR-15. Bought that too. Even to buy an assault weapon, the background check only takes a matter of minutes. I don't have possession yet but I'll be turning it over to the Tucson PD when I do. Scary to think of people buying guns like these without a background check at a gun show or the Internet. We really need to close the gun show and private seller loop hole.
There are several problems with his statement and obvious attempt at propaganda:
Problem 1: AR-15 are not "assault weapons":
As a former military officer, Kelly is aware that AR-15's are not military rifles; they are civilian rifles that cosmetically look like the military M4A1 rifle. They do not have the same functionality. I have written previously in detail about this very issue, as has fellow PolicyMic pundit Elaine Hays. Captain Kelly is a very educated man (MS in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School). NASA pilots tend to be very intelligent people. So if Captain Kelly isn't dumb, he's playing dumb. This indicates a decision to engage in emotional wordplay designed to scare people who are generally ignorant about firearms.
A second issue on this point: Captain Kelly claims as a combat vet, he has knowledge of so-called "assault weapons" capability. However, he was a Navy pilot, not a Marine with ground combat experience. He is again playing up his credentials to make it sound like he's a subject matter expert while simultaneously putting forth misleading, inaccurate information about the very topic he claims expertise in. Score: political rhetoric; 1, voice of reason: 0:
Problem 2: Background check time frame:
Captain Kelly is really playing dumb with this one: "the background check only takes a matter of minutes." How long is a background check supposed to take? Hours? Days? We'll get back to you in Neverbrurary? As a former Navy Captain and NASA pilot, Kelly has been through federal background checks to obtain security clearance. NASA pilots represent a very small group of people entrusted with sensitive tasks; security clearance is required. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is designed to prevent convicted felons, the mentally ill and other prohibited persons from obtaining firearms. A NICS check is required for every purchase from Federal Firearms Licensed (FFL) gun sellers – this includes at retail stores as well as gun shows, according to 18 U.S.C. 922(t), 27 CFR 478.102. A NICS check – as it is designed – runs a check for a person based on their social security number to the NICS system to ensure they aren't prohibited; it's designed to only take minutes. Federal law (the Brady Bill) doesn't even provide for a waiting period, although some states require various waiting periods before the buyer make take possession of the firearm. So the NICS check did what it's supposed to do when Kelly purchased his firearms (unless Kelly has committed felonies since leaving the Navy and NASA, or has been adjudicated mentally ill). Kelly is again playing on the ignorance of those generally not familiar with the legal process under federal law to purchase firearms by bemoaning that the check "only took minutes." What?! Call the FBI! Oh, wait ...that's what the gun store did when they ran the NICS check. Score: political rhetoric: 2, voice of reason: 0.
Problem 3: Gun show loophole:
There is no gun-show "loophole" as I have previously written. Loophole implies something nefarious or sneaky is being done to circumvent a rule, when in actuality it is — and always has been — legal for an individual (non-FFL holder) to sell their own firearms (personal property) to another person. NICS checks only became the law for FFL holders in 1994, but doesn't apply to regular, average citizens with no FFL. Unscrupulous politicians and celebrity spokespeople (perhaps with political office aspirations?) claim that "up to" 40% of gun sales are purchased with no NICS background check. This is not the case. The study from 1994 of 251 people has an actual range of 14-22% with a +/- error margin of 6%, which means the final range is as low as 8% to as high as 28%; neither figure is 40%.
Secondly – and more importantly – the law requires FFL holders to run a background check on every sale, gun show or retail store. Private sales can occur at gun shows, but private sales can occur anywhere under the law. Score: political rhetoric: 3, voice of reason: 0.
Problem 4: Internet sales:
This is a new creative lie pushed by those with an anti-gun agenda. It is true that one may purchase (as in pay for) a firearm online and there are many vendors that do this, such as Atlantic Firearms, Centerfire Systems, Gunbroker, Guns America and others. However, this does not mean a firearm will be delivered to your doorstep like your last order from Amazon. No internet vendors will ship the firearm directly to you – it must go to a licensed FFL holder who will then run a NICS check by law. Only after the buyer has passed the NICS check can they take possession of the firearm and go home.
Problem 5: The many flaws in NICS:
As I have written previously, as well as fellow PolicyMic pundits Jack Lee and David Susman, NICS has several flaws that must be addressed for background checks to have any chance at producing a positive end result. Gabrielle Giffords was shot by a mentally ill person who had not yet been diagnosed and classified as a prohibited person under NICS rules. He was able to legally purchase his handguns even after going through a NICS check. The shooter in Aurora, Colorado also similarly legally purchased his handgun, shotgun, and AR-15 rifle even after a NICS check. The Sandy Hook shooter murdered his mother and stole her guns; NICS could not have prevented that, although he was denied a retail purchase previously. NICS is not fully funded; many states do not fully report data to NICS; the Justice Department only prosecutes a fraction of 1% of NICS fraud cases; NICS doesn't address illegal trafficking, straw man purchases and illegal transfer, and theft (including theft from the police and military). The majority of criminals obtain weapons via straw man, illegal transfer, or illegal trafficking.
NICS doesn't effectively prevent felons or the mentally ill from obtaining firearms now as these examples illustrate. In order for NICS to work, these issues must be addressed. Without fixing these problems, the proposed solution is guaranteed to not work, because we already know it is not working. Further, we can readily identify what needs to be fixed. Attempting a partial solution is insanity. Taking only a partial dose of antibiotics is often more dangerous than not taking any antibiotics. NASA wouldn't send a shuttle to space with only some of the fuel or parts required to work. We need real medicine on this issue, a real solution not more of the same empty political rhetoric. Score: political rhetoric: 5, voice of reason: 0.
Captain Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords have an opportunity to genuinely be a voice of reason on gun control, or to engage in half-truth propaganda and rhetoric, as is standard for most. They have only just begun their non-profit efforts; they may still yet choose a more reasoned approach that doesn't entail band-aid, partial solutions, or false solutions — which won't actually help anyone. They, perhaps more than most ought to be raising awareness of mental illness as it affects gun violence. Addressing the other underlying causes, like gang violence (responsible for half of all violent crime in America), drug abuse (the single largest predictor of violence), and concentrated urban population and poverty could also be advocated. If Giffords and Kelly are serious about helping others, they ought to advocate for real solutions to the issue.