The First Time I Ever Actually Thought About Gun Laws

On Saturday I went to an estate sale, my first.

At first I was nervous that someone from the family would be there—my first assumption was that the estate sale was being held because the house was being foreclosed on and the family had to liquidate. But I asked one of the women working if the family was there. “No,” she said. “Unfortunately the occupant of the home has passed.” “Oh, good,” I said. (“Oh, good, he’s just DEAD. Not homeless, just DEAD.”)

By the door, a large Russian man sat in a chair. He was the boss of the sale. Next to him was a table of guns. There were three rifles with scopes (between $250 and $450 each) and a handgun, a Beretta ($600), which looked exactly like what you think of when you think of a handgun. It looked violent. The rifles had wood bodies—you could imagine them being purchased for shooting deer for venison; for shooting rabid dogs between the eyes; for putting old horses out of their misery. But the Beretta? This was a gun for shooting people. 

There were boxes of ammo on the table, bags of other ammo. I stood across the room and stared. A man was holding the Beretta, feeling the weight of it in his hand. He looked like Mr. Feeney on Boy Meets World. Completely unthreatening. But I kept my eye on the gun in his hands. “It’s not loaded?” he asked, already sure of the answer, his finger was grazing the trigger. “No, no,” said the Russian man. “We check and check again. Also it’s never been used. Brand new.” A sign by the table said no negotiating, but there was a silent bid system. If the guns weren’t sold by the end of the sale, whoever put the highest bid in the bid box could buy the gun for that price. The man put the gun down. Said he’d think about bidding. Wandered into another room.

I stayed in the corner, and asked the Russian man: “Do you have to do a background check or record the information of who you sell those guns to?” He laughed. “No, no. This is private sale! Anyone can buy gun at private sale. Back home, everyone had guns, for safety. Should be same here.”

The man who had been holding the Beretta earlier, now in the kitchen holding a china teapot, chimed in. “Thank God we can still buy guns. Gun laws don’t stop criminals—never have. Criminals can always get a gun.”

In fact, gun laws rarely stop anyone. There are two ways to legally buy guns in the United States. The first way is from a gun retailer, which must be federally licensed. Here’s how that goes, according to a really great report (“Private Party Gun Sales, Regulation, and Public Safety” by Garen J. Wintemute, M.D., M.P.H., Anthony A. Braga, Ph.D., and David M. Kennedy) in the New England Journal of Medicine:“You must show identification. You must certify on a lengthy form that you are buying the gun for yourself and that you are not a member of any of several classes  of people (including felons and  persons under felony indictment, fugitives, domestic-violence offenders, controlled-substance addicts, persons “adjudicated as a mental defective,” and certain others) who are prohibited from purchasing or possessing firearms. A background check will be conducted. In more than 90% of cases, the check is completed within minutes, but if there is uncertainty you may wait up to 3 days to get your gun. The retailer must keep a permanent record of your purchase. If you buy more than one handgun from that retailer within  5 business days, the retailer must report the details of your purchase to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).”

The other legal way to buy a gun is from a private dealer, like say, from a Russian man at an estate sale. Or at a gun show. A dude in parking lot. A dude on the internet. Here’s how that goes: “Private party gun sales can be completely anonymous and undocumented. Private sellers are not required  to see identification or keep records, and they cannot initiate background checks.” All those people who can’t buy guns from retailers technically can’t buy guns from anyone, but with private sales, no on asks any questions. They don’t have to.

From the Wintemute, Braga, and Kennedy report: “Perhaps the principal reason for the well-documented failure of the Brady Act  to lower rates of firearm-related  homicide is that its requirements  do not apply to private-party gun sales. Regulating all private-party sales, by contrast, would have measurable benefits.”

My cousin bought some stamps, my other cousin, some Swedish Kroner. I didn’t buy anything. Nobody bought the guns. My cousin considered going back yesterday to see what was left—there was an old painting he’d been thinking about. But we didn’t go, and the sale ended. The guns will be gone now. Where to or who with, no one could say.


15 Comments / Post A Comment

samsei (#947)

It’s “Beretta”. The picture is actually a Beretta, though, good job there.

@samsei “let me google the gun name so i get the number of R’s and T’s right and also so i can completely avoid looking at the second letter” aldkfjaskldf. thank you sir.

deepomega (#22)

The problem, of course, is that the left really is at the wrong end of a cultural argument – we can’t say “oh no we just want sensible gun laws to keep convicted felons from buying guns” because of the huge, vocal opposition to ALL guns. The right will never believe it.

Of course, note how the Obama administration hasn’t done anything about guns, anyway – maybe if we sit down and shut up for long enough gun rights advocates won’t be able to hit us with that stick?

Claire (#2,540)

Just throwing it out there, banning all guns (excluding farmers, sport and hunting) has worked really, really well in Australia. Really well.

lizard (#2,615)

@Claire well then you havent banned guns then have you?

Blondsak (#2,299)

@Claire As someone familiar with Australia’s gun laws and the stats/outcomes since those regulations were put in place, you are 100% correct. Unfortunately, at least for the next 2 generations, America will never agree to do something so sensible.

awk (#840)

I am one of those redneck-y people who doesn’t really support gun law reform.

Mostly because I get off the train in DC every day and am greeted my AMTRAK cops (yes, those exist) decked from head to toe in kevlar and armed with excessive firepower, including a taser, side arm and M4 rifle. If they need all that stuff to defend against commuters, I surely should be allowed to purchase a Beretta 90 series 9mm, right?

But I would happily sign on to a gun control law if there were a clause that made it an automatic felony for a law enforcement official to excessively discharge a weapon, accidentally or otherwise, and then banned that officer from ever serving in any law enforcement capacity again.

@awk I think the militia types have the right idea. If the whole point of private gun ownership is as a bulwark against totalitarianism, then citizens should be able to own and operate the full gamut of military hardware — tanks, combat helicopters, long-range guided missiles, etc.

I mean, if farmers with shotguns could stop the U.S. Army surely they would have done so by now in Afghanistan and Iraq, right?

ETA: Also I like the idea that all citizens want to be cops, but I’ve never heard somebody say “I really should own my own fire truck!”

awk (#840)

@stuffisthings C’mon. Very few people can afford to buy their own attack helicopters. :)

@awk You don’t like the idea of Wall Streeters flying around in fully armed Apaches? Downright unAmerican of you!

(Also: Those things crash all the fucking time. Just sayin’…)

awk (#840)

@stuffisthings In all seriousness, the Taliban and the Iraqi militias use(d) military-grade weaponry. It’s not like they were just sniping down U.S. up-armored humvees with shotguns and 22s.

Also, there was a time in this country (I always wanted to say that!) where gun control meant not arming the government with expensive weapons, but rather leaving it to the citizens. When that changed, America’s military started killing a LOT more people. All of these countries in Europe (and Australia) realized a while ago that a smaller military/government violence apparatus corresponds with less killing, both inside and outside the country. Gun control must be done both on the civilian and governmental fronts to be successful. Until that happens, I will continue to save my pennies to purchase the F-15 I always wanted…

@awk I’m against heavily armed police and police violence, but also against extensive private gun ownership.

However! I have an article you will really like if you’ve not encountered it: The Secret History of Guns.

cmcm (#267)


I did not know, and still cannot believe, that this is how things work. Way to go, America.

Brunhilde (#78)

He just asked if it was loaded and didn’t check? You just failed rule #1 in gun safety man.

Saaoirse (#112)

I mean, isn’t the big problem that gun control is so often a diversion from talking about the social causes of crime, like poverty and alienation and whatnot? I’m from Britain, so sort of instinctively for gun control- and this private sale stuff sounds all sorts of mad- but at the same time I understand the arguments against it, and since it’s so diversive in the states, maybe a focus on education, fighting poverty, and such, might be more effective? Then again, I suppose that stuff can be pretty diversive, too.

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