Anti-gun activists "pounce" on NRA staffer's comments about gun registries

AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File

The gun control movement is sputtering these days. Millions of Americans have embraced their Second Amendment rights and purchased a gun for the first time in their lives over the past couple of years, and support for new gun control laws is anemic at best. Meanwhile, 25 states have now adopted Constitutional Carry legislation, while anti-gun activists are still bitterly clinging to the “may issue” regimes in place in a handful of states like New York, New Jersey, and California; regimes that could be declared unconstitutional in a few weeks when the Supreme Court issues its decision in NYSPRA v. Bruen

To be sure, the gun control lobby has had its share of victories this year, including a new ban on “large capacity” magazines approved in the state of Washington, but for the most part the anti-gunners are playing defense these days. Heck, they’re now trying to get their second choice for ATF director approved after gun control activist David Chipman’s nomination flamed out in the Senate, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be successful this time around.

The number one bogeyman for the gun banners has long been the NRA, so it’s no surprise that anti-gun researchers would try to use any comment from an NRA official to their advantage, especially these days, and a new story from Los Angeles Times reporter Will Van Sant does its best to stir up controversy over a paragraph included in NRA research director Josh Savini’s report to NRA board members in December of last year.

For decades, the NRA has pressured lawmakers to block the collection of ownership data — and denied that its position stifles legitimate firearms research. But in a January 2021 report to board members gathered in Dallas, Josh Savani, the NRA’s director of research and information, acknowledged that the group’s lobbying has created a major obstacle.

“All firearms research suffers from one problem: we do not know how many firearms are in the United States or how they are distributed,” Savani wrote in a brief report titled “Assessing Firearm Research.” “[The] NRA has long supported various federal laws and appropriation riders as well as laws at the state level to prohibit the collection and centralization of firearms records. While these laws are intended to prevent the creation of firearms registries, they also prevent researchers from conducting accurate studies with the number and distribution of firearms as a variable.”

What the Los Angeles Times doesn’t report, at least directly, is what else Savini had to say about the state of firearms research, which includes problems with “misspecification,” which Savini describes as “studies that attempt to show more permissive firearms policies increase various types of violent crime” yet “often fail to account for the various laws of different jurisdictions.” Savini also told board members in his report that other studies focus on “events that are too rare to draw scientifically valid conclusions,” which also cast doubt on their findings.

In other words, Savini was detailing several issues with research into the efficacy of gun laws (both pro- and anti-Second Amendment), not just the idea that the lack of a centralized database of gun owners and the firearms they own “precent researchers from conducting accurate studies with the number and distribution of firearms as a variable.” To pro-gun control researchers like Stanford’s David Studdert, however, Savini’s comments are a sign of something nefarious on the part of the gun lobby.

Garen Wintemute, a physician and professor at UC Davis who has studied gun violence for four decades, called Savani’s statements “an admission of what the NRA has denied for 25 years.”

Studdert, the Stanford professor, said Savani’s acknowledgement was “shocking but not surprising.” He added that he was “impressed by the astuteness of the observation. In my view, that’s the number one problem with gun violence research in the United States.”

Well, I have bad news for Studdert. There will never be an accurate, up-to-date centralized registry of gun owners in this country, and the reason has very little to do with the NRA. Let’s pretend that the NRA and every other Second Amendment organization out there folded up their tent tonight and disappeared from public view. Let’s further pretend that Joe Manchin was possessed by the ghost of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and suddenly came out in support of nuking the filibuster, which allowed a gun registration law to be passed on a 51-50 vote in the Senate and signed into law by Joe Biden. How many gun owners would comply with a law requiring them to report to the federal government the make, model, and serial number of every firearm in their possession?

My guess that it would be far less than 50%, based in part on what happened in New York after the passage of the SAFE Act in 2013, when gun owners were told they need to re-register their handguns and register all “assault weapons” with the government. There was “massive noncompliance” with both provisions, and I doubt that gun owners in places like Alabama, Wyoming, and Texas would be any more likely to obey a gun registration order than their counterparts in New York State.

Even in California, where all firearm transfers are supposed to be tracked by the state, authorities don’t really know the names and addresses of every gun owner in the state. The data will never be as accurate as researches want it to be because some gun owners will simply refuse to hand over that information. Who owns a gun and what guns they own is an “unknown unknown,” to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, and there’s no real way for the gun control lobby to change that, even if their pipe dream of a personal firearms registry ever became a dystopian reality.

Still, if the Supreme Court does end up ruling in Dobbs that the right to privacy cannot be found in the Constitution or any emanations of its penumbras, I wouldn’t be shocked to see anti-gun Democrats in blue states to make a renewed push for state and federal gun registries in response. It would be odd if their desire to track gun owners (as well as to punish those who don’t comply) ends up getting a boost from the same Supreme Court that will hopefully soon formally recognize the right to bear arms, but we live in decidedly odd times.