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.

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