Hi, my name is Carl Sarkisian and I was a gun grabber. Before I had to flee to New Zealand, I was the senior implementation architect for the largest gun safety organizations in America. We were the top dog among all the non-profits in the gun control game, so as the chief brainstomer, it was my job to come up with, develop, and implement how we’d transform America unto a gun free nation. It was my idea; I take all the credit for it.
The question was “How do we get rid of all the guns?” America was, and still is, a country awash with guns. Our official projections were all over the map—from 100 to 150 million guns, half a gun for each citizen, to well over 600 million guns. No one really knew what was out there, lost in the back of closets, wedged behind dusty headboards, hidden in attics, buried in backyards, etc. I remember one guy brought boxes and boxes of guns, something like 500 in all, to a surrender center. Turns out he didn’t own more than 50 rounds of ammo; he was just some hoarder like a crazy cat lady, but with guns.
When we announced gun registration, it went over like a wrapped turd. One of the congressmen who supported the announcement was shot in the back while jogging a couple weeks later. No one ever found who did it or where exactly the shot came from, but the FBI figured that some lone shooter hid out in the woods a couple hundred yards away and sniped the congressman in the back. Never be predictable and always run on a treadmill.
There were some protests, of course, but standing around politely with your rattlesnake and Confederate flags does nothing, even with a rifle slung over your shoulder. It was the lone wolves that were the problem. Local offices of the alphabet soup federal law enforcement agencies were variously shot up or burned. A couple agents got killed. And of course a dozen state and federal politicos were assassinated. More fuel for the fire.
An old joke in Washington is that Social Security is the third rail of politics; touch it and you’re dead. The Second Amendment was really touch of death for politicians. The gun control push after that retard in Connecticut killed all those kids was what flipped Congress to the Republicans in 2014. We got a couple states to enact common sense gun control laws in 2013, but not enough. We focused on the weak states, ones with Democrat governors and Democrat controlled legislatures. Connecticut was in the bag, they even mandated retroactive registration of assault weapons and high capacity magazines! New York passed its SAFE Act, which wasn’t as well thought out as it could have been, but it was still a victory.
Out west, we got Colorado in the bag to ban high capacity magazines and pass universal background checks to close the gun show and internet loopholes. Oregon just took a little push to enact universal background checks too. We almost had Nevada, but the trailer trash living in their tar paper shacks in Pahrump and the rest of that godforsaken wasteland rang Governor Sandoval’s phone off his desk and he vetoed it. But we were learning and we finally found our silver bullet in the silver state in 2018.
Losing in Congress in 2013, even with all the momentum we had—god I love dead children—we had to come up with some sort of strategy to defeat the NRA. Congress is a fickle bunch; once the gun nuts start doing the bidding of the NRA you can bet those weasels run away from the party phone booths begging for donations to tell Mr. and Mrs. Camo Jacket that they’ll be happy to sacrifice some school kids to the murder cube. Like I said, losing in Congress when we had a crisis to exploit made us sit back and think hard. No, the federal strategy wasn’t it right now.
At the federal level, gun “rights” opponents were too powerful, too unified. A win a the federal level was the grand prize, a full victory in one fell swoop. Yet the absolutely irrational public reaction made it impossible. I was as dumbfounded as the rest of us. Violence was at an all-time low and no one really needed guns. People were fairly supportive of gun control. For the times we were living in—we had a Black president for heaven’s sake—the bitter clingers wouldn’t let go of their guns and they were growing. More people than ever were buying guns even as kids died and terrorists shot people up. Mystifying and illogical.
Defeated at the federal level, we took it to the states. Nevada made us learn that we couldn’t count on Republican governors (and especially Republican legislatures) to do the right thing and pass common sense gun laws. Common sense is actually uncommon. So we took it to the voters. We won on the ballot like we did in Washington, twice. Okay, we lost in main, but we taught Nevada a lesson by stealing the governorship from that worthless attorney general.
Direct democracy was a godsend to us. The Founding Fathers knew the potential dangers of mob rule and instituted a representative republic form of government. All in all, the wise men elected to office did a pretty good job of keeping things in order over the years. However, one little thing those old men in white wigs didn’t count on was when the mobs convinced Congress to drink whatever Kool-Aid the mob was drinking. Had the Congress of 2013 had any backbone, the gun lobby would have been SOL in 2013. Not so, unfortunately.
In response, we turned direct democracy on its head. Refuse to pass common sense gun laws? Well the public knows better and many states give voters the power to pass initiatives to circumvent an obstinate elected government. All we had to do was an initiative on the ballot, get the correct message out, and get people to vote “yes.” It was astonishingly easy to do. Like our strategy for getting legislatures to pass common sense gun laws, we chose our battlegrounds carefully.
The goal was momentum and so we had to choose our targets carefully. The qualifications were: rural state with a large urban population, a large percentage of the state that leans Democrat, large numbers of non-whites or other minority groups, strong initiative systems, and traditional “gun friendly” states. To begin, we went West. Colorado was a great experiment and luckily they had the right kind of politicians in office. Washington needed a different approach, and as luck would have it, I-594 fit the bill perfectly.
I-594 was about closing the gun show and internet loophole by passing comprehensive background checks on all gun sales, though we were fond of calling them “universal background checks” at the time. Private gun sales were a huge thorn in our side. People buying and selling guns on the side invalidates prohibited person restrictions and would ultimately negate gun registration. At the same time, you can’t have effective background checks without gun registration, because unless the cops setup a sting or someone is dumb enough to confess, you can’t prove who owned the gun or there really was a background check run. It was a Catch-22 and horse/cart problem, but we had to start somewhere and gun registration would mean pitchforks, torches, and hot tar (if we were lucky).
So we went to Washington and hit the Puget Sound region hard. All those urban votes and Democratic voters, plus the plethora of California expats. Oh how I love ex-Californians! That’s how we took Colorado over the years and will eventually take Texas (I prefer to think of Austin as center of spreading enlightenment, not a tumor). The good folks at Michael Bloomberg’s groups (despite the names, it’s a conglomerate with franchises) led the charge with grassroots efforts. Okay, Astroturf, not grassroots, but those idiots in the voting booths couldn’t tell the difference and for that matter, neither could the true-believers who wore the orange shirts.
It took millions to win. There were the usual costs; staff, stickers, signs, billboard, etc. but we still had to get on TV. TV was the real winner; a thirty-second ad featuring cops, moms of dead kids, and filled with images of crime scenes sealed the deal. Who in their right mind could be for arming criminals? Pass this law and keep your neighborhood drug dealer from selling guns. If your ex-husband is threatening to kill you, this will keep him from buying a gun. Do you really want some psycho white kid to buy a trunk full of assault weapons and show up at your baby’s elementary school for target practice?
Even so, it wasn’t an overwhelming win. 60/40 is not a real victory nor is it overwhelming support. The NRA, pretty much the only group really to fight back, screwed up big time. Not enough money, volunteers, or commercials and splitting the votes with their own confusing pro-gun (pro-death) initiative was stupid. Still, we won and that’s the important thing, despite the wishes of the gun huggers and the racists who lived east of the Cascades. I say let them break off and form their own skinhead ‘Redoubt’. In time, the inbreeding, violence, stupidity, and the cold will take care of them.
That win was just the shot in the arm we needed. The initial stages were already set in Nevada and Bloomberg had people out collecting signatures for the petitions. There were a lot of screw-ups on those petitions. Thankfully Nevada is such a small state that none of the counties had the ability to seriously check the signatures. We could have bought the judges if we needed to; the judiciary there is as corrupt as a banana republic.
All those ex-Californians were what we were counting on, plus the blacks who hate guns because their kids shoot each other up all the time, and the Hispanics who seem to fear guns almost as much as they used to fear “La Migra.” Those are about the only two groups who should have any legitimate fear over gun violence, but we saw the most support from the liberal white Cali ex-pats who came to Nevada for the cost of living and stayed for the no income tax. Soccer moms and the elderly pearl-clutching grandmothers were our bread and butter. Few people are so gullible and easy to manipulate as liberal women…and I’ve had my share.
It was a long, uphill fight to get comprehensive background checks passed. Ugh, I choke on the name. Saying things like that so much tends to warp your thinking. Let’s call a spade a spade; we were banning private gun sales and transfers by forcing them all into dealers. More on that later. “Comprehensive” or “universal”, it doesn’t matter what you call it, it still means background checks on all gun sales. We couldn’t tell the truth that a minority of guns are sold privately, or that guns don’t show up at your door via Amazon Prime. So we implied that there was a significant portion of gun sales that were not background checked, in other words, that background checks were woefully incomplete
The average jackass voter understood the message as “People can buy guns without background checks?” We didn’t tell them that background checks don’t really work, or that failed background checks are rarely prosecuted or even charged, and we didn’t tell them that gun shows have far more licensed dealers than old men trying to get rid of their gun collections. The public thought that more background checks would stop their abusive husband or the gangbangers next door from buying a gun. We didn’t tell them that there was no way we could stop the drug dealers and crooked licensed dealers from still selling guns, or that background checks couldn’t detect the crazies who looked normal, like the guy who shot up the Batman premiere in Colorado, or that background checks would have no way to tell if a girlfriend was buying the gun for her felon boyfriend.
Background checks weren’t the point; they were never the point. They don’t do a damn thing and only give the DA an extra charge after the fact, if that. No, background checks were a means to registration and an easy way to sell our framework to the football obsessed losers who spent hours learning every detail about the gorillas smashing into each other on the field, but couldn’t take five minutes to read or think critically.
Yes, we capitalized on the laziness and ignorance of the American public. People can say “no” to gun registration and “no more gun control,” but no one could vote no to “background checks on all gun sales.” “What do you mean we don’t have background checks on all gun sales?” Donny Dumbass asked rhetorically while he waited for the Raiders game to come back on. Thank heavens idiots like that can barely read, or else we might have been sunk when he realized he couldn’t borrow his brother-in-law’s hunting rifle for deer season.
We had to get the guns into gun dealers for sales and transfers and that is what the initiatives were about. Every gun sold by a dealer was recorded on an ATF Form 4473, which includes the buyer’s information; this was the form that was used to facilitate the Brady background check via the federal or state system (it differed from state to state). Dealers were required to retain the forms for 20 years or surrender them to the ATF upon closing or going out of business. The ATF would store the forms in a facility in Martinsburg, West Virginia.
Way back in the 1920s, one of the proposals to gun down on gun violence then was sales records and waiting periods for gun purchases, generally for pistols. Dealers would keep a record that police could later inspect, or like in California, there would be a short waiting period and the records delivered to the police for inspection. Without computerized background checks, it was a mostly after-the-fact system, or optimistically, if a cop recognized a felon’s name on the sales record the buyer could be arrested when he showed up to pick up the gun.
California’s registration system involved reporting their state form, the Dealer’s Record of Sale (or DROS), to the state Department of Justice. First it was pistols, then it became all guns later on. Eventually, all new guns sold (or used ones) by dealers were automatically registered upon their sale. California then banned private guns sales, first handguns, then long-guns, eliminating any loopholes. Thus anytime a gun changed hands legally in California, it became registered with the state.
That was the inadvertent geneses of the transaction based gun registration system. It was oh so easy to sell it as background checks because the registration forms were the background check forms. Guns have to get a background check to be transferred; it just so happens that they are registered on the basis of that transaction. This was only possible because California had an in-state system that could run and track the background checks as well as save the data for the gun registry. Separate registries for each state would be ineffective and once again negated by states without background checks.
That’s where the NICS (National Instant Check System) requirement came into play. NICS was the FBI-run background check system established by the Brady Bill. States had access to the same data if they wanted to run their own system. It doesn’t matter if state systems were better because they had local or mental health records in them or not. Again, live I’ve been saying, it was never about background checks. You don’t need background checks if guns are illegal. Anyhow, by forcing the states with local systems to use the NICS system for private checks, we create an unnecessary burden on dealers and duplicate the process. Since in most states, initiatives can’t be easily altered by the legislature, it was basically an encouragement to streamline the state into going federal. It was also a foot in the door for how we would ultimately register guns.
I don’t know exactly who came up with the domino effect strategy, but it was brilliant. We would never win states like Idaho, Utah, or anything in Redneckistan, and as I explained earlier, taking the country as a whole was too big of a bite to chew. As the states began to fall, momentum began to build. Once we had enough states that adopted our background check laws, we would have enough to go to Congress with and have it made national. Having a majority of states all on the same page would invalidate any argument that it should not be a national system.
For years, states with strict gun laws complained about their lax neighbors. Most crime guns in New York City came from all over the country, usually smuggled up from networks that involved people with clean records buying guns from dealers. Thefts and abuse of private gun sales were in there too, but usual it was some sort of buyer fraud or dealers who were in on the scam. This “iron pipeline” stymied gun control and frustrated the cops. Dubious interstate enforcement methods and political pressure were used, but they didn’t work. The easy access to guns in other states had to be ended.
This is where the background check ruse and public safety came together. Why should Idaho, with its lax gun laws, be the chief supplier of crime guns to Washington? Why does Arizona allow Los Angeles gang members to buy guns in their gun shows to take back to California? With 33 states requiring background checks on all guns sales, why allow the minority of states to supply guns to criminals elsewhere? We finally had a compliant Congress and president in office and the 33 states ganged up on the 17 other states. With a critical mass of states using the federal system for private background checks and banning private gun sales, the rest of the states had to go along. Thank you interstate commerce clause, we got our federal comprehensive background check law in place.
It became a federal crime to sell or transfer a gun without first going to a licensed dealer who would perform a background check using the federal NICS system. All states with their own background check system had a year to transition. What happened next was truly fortuitous and changed our strategy.
When the economy collapsed, it created a glut of violence in the cities. Good for gun sales. Things looked grim for a while, but then we had the _______ School massacre. While it was rural, it was in an ultra-liberal state where no practically no one owned guns. It was too small of a town and county to have a need for a school resource officer or armed security. What were a bunch of little kids going to do?
Anyhow, fast forwarding, the killers took advantage of the lack of law enforcement. By the time the two deputies who patrolled that part of the county and their state trooper counterpart arrived, thirty-odd kids and teachers were dead and the rest herded into the gymnasium. As every cop in a hundred miles poured in, the killers took their time committing truly unspeakable atrocities. Yes, the two killers were shot (or killed themselves) immediately thereafter, but the damage was done.
The killers had bought their firearms legally in Idaho and Arizona because they heard all the news reports on how easy it was to buy guns there. Nevermind that all but one was bought from dealers legally because the killers were smart enough to get in-state driver’s licenses. Locating the guns sold took two weeks of full-time frantic efforts of the FBI and ATF because the records of the thousands of dealers in the state had to be checked manually.
Reports of potential co-conspirators and other threats ran rampant. Americans ran out like scared sheep and bought more guns. Things exploded when the FBI released emails from some terrorists guru in some Middle Eastern country telling them how they can buy guns easier than building bombs. Guns were easy to get and a surer way of getting kills than unreliable homemade bombs made by amateurs. Besides, American killers preferred guns to bombs.
When no co-conspirators turned up, just the total exploitation of the system because none of the men had any criminal records, we focused on Darryl Wayne Drover. Drover was a 69 year old man who sold the Glock pistol he didn’t care for to his friendly neighbor “Moe” who said he was afraid of some men who had threatened him. That last part, clearly a lie, we conveniently got dropped from the narrative. Drover was prosecuted successfully on federal charges, but the accessory to murder charges were thrown out before trial.
CNN, MSNBC, the Times, the Post, and all the other mainstream media outlets we owned (figuratively speaking) all helped beat the drum for gun registration. We could have ruled out the co-conspirators sooner had we known where the guns came from. It would have made the investigation easier. Maybe, just maybe, if we had gun registration, the suspicious purchases (that weren’t really suspicious) could have been identified sooner. Gun registration could have (would have!) stopped this from happening!
California led the charge for gun registration. They even threatened sanctions and lawsuits against states that didn’t vote for it. Legislatures convened, mostly in opposition, and fat “patriots” in old army fatigues assembled in parks to wave their assault rifles around. Congress passed our gun registration program, simply requiring all NICS background checks to be stored by the government in a computer database. Just simple reporting of the ATF Form 4473s, is all it was.
Everybody saw through that, but it wasn’t meant as anything more than a smokescreen. We didn’t want them to catch on to the other requirement, the one that required all completed Form 4473s to be archived and searchable in a federal computer database. Before too much of an uproar began, we tasked the ATF with a crash project to scan the forms they already had.
Countless forms were stored in physical format in National Tracing Center in West Virginia. By federal law, which banned a gun registry, searching the forms was a manual process that involved opening boxes, pulling open drawers, or scanning microfilm, for the record needed. Despite the cumbersome process, it was quite effective and far quicker than one might assume. Our problem: it was a giant fire hazard. I had nightmares of hillbillies descending on the building and making bonfires in the parking lot.
First, we digitized all the Form 4473s. It wasn’t too hard to do; we setup a warehouse filled with optical scanners, the rotary kind, and had a bunch of federal contractors from a temp agency feed them through. Some wonks from a university somewhere funded on a grant paid for by a certain billionaire obsessed with telling people what was good for them wrote up some custom software.
The software did most of the work, but the nature of handwriting made it necessary to have someone look over the questionable scans and verify the handwriting was correct. For $20 an hour, damn good money for glorified data entry, a bunch of old ladies whose chief experience in life was medical transcription and staring at microfilm doing genealogy research did the work. Those old ladies were pretty good. Anyone else would have gone batshit from staring at shitty handwriting all day. “Is that a P or is that a Q?” That’s what they did, plus spot-checking random samples of the computer OCR stuff to verify it was accurate.
In a few months, everything the ATF had was digital. Then came the hard part.
Now because the digital connections weren’t quite as complete as we hoped (partly true and partly an excuse), ATF had inspectors go out and copy all digital records that dealers had. Many used tracking software for their own purposes while some used electronic Form 4473s. The inspectors just lied, saying they wanted all the records since the registration requirement began, but scooped up any electronic records there were to be found. The dealers knew they had been crossed, but had no recourse other than to post on some nutjobs blogs and the discredited corners of the internet.
Once that was done, we required all the paper records to be surrendered, which meant that if you bought a gun in the last 20 years, we stood a good chance to get your information. Dealers fought this one tooth and nail. Some burned the records and even started shooting. There was major pushback, but a few high profile raids and dead dealers solved the problem. Most were picked up at night with no warning and a night service search warrant. “Sorry about the door!” the notes the agents left would read. The months long collection effort was a ton of work, but on the plus side, the raids and confiscations put plenty of dealers out of business. Many just walked away.
The 4473s from the dealers were scanned in like the rest, but we had to hire more workers to get the forms processed. It was nuts and a few of the data entry personnel just up and quit after staring at letters and numbers all day. In the meantime, lots of other things happened that sped up our confiscation plans. I was pleasantly surprised, which I needed, considering the alarming amount of ATF agents who were coincidentally quitting or transferring.
Initially, we had planned on an incremental approach. Senator Feinstein, herself a victim of gun violence, would have confiscated guns in the ‘90s if she had enough votes. “Mr. and Mrs. America, turn ‘em all in.” Over time, we lost the advantage we had because our politicians lack the courage to be decisive. So, baby steps, like we took knocking over the states on background checks.
First, it was background checks/banning private gun sales. Second, “gun violence restraining orders” where anyone could get a restraining order against any weirdo who had guns and might become violent. California really went above and beyond when they enacted ammo background checks and licensing, eliminated the “bullet button” loophole, and prohibited family gun transfers. They leapt a mile a mile ahead. I personally loved their safe handgun roster, where if a gun didn’t meet rigorous California requirements and be submitted for testing and approval (and renewed) the gun was illegal to sell in California. That significantly cut down on the number of first pistols, then revolvers, available in that state.
Since there was no practical way to register all the existing guns out there, all we could do is register the new ones sold and all the old guns that legally changed hands. Sooner or later (probably close to a century), virtually every gun would be registered. We planned to help this along with various registration requirements, like only registered guns can be carried outside the home, hunters must have registered rifles, handgun-only or assault-weapon-only registration, etc. We figured the narrow route would work, but still take a decade or two. What we needed was an opportunity (recall the Chinese word for opportunity is the same as for crisis) that would provide us the cover to require existing guns be registered.
To be continued...
Clayton E. Cramer
Gun Free Zone
The War on Guns
The View From Out West