Do Background Checks Keep Guns Out Of The Wrong Hands?

Last year there was a recall election in Colorado in which two state Senators who sponsored a new gun-control law were replaced by NRA-backed candidates who promised to try and repeal the new law.  The measure, which has been in effect since last July, extended background checks to private transactions, exactly the same measure that failed at the federal level.  Proponents of extending background checks claim that it is an important method for keeping guns out of the hands of felons and others who are disqualified from owning guns.  The NRA and other pro-gun groups argue that any additional gun control measure is a slippery slope that leads to confiscation and prohibition of guns.

We don’t have crime stats from Colorado that might or might not show any correlation between crime rates and the new law, but the Colorado Bureau of Investigation just released some data on the new background checks of private sales, and it’s worth reviewing the results.  According to the CBI, there have been 6,076 background checks conducted on private transfers or sales of firearms since the new law went in to effect.  Of those checks, 104 were denied because the individual attempting to receive or purchase the gun was a felon or had some other disqualifying event, such as a restraining order growing out of a domestic dispute.

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Do the math and the new Colorado law has prevented .017 of transfers between private hands.  This may seem like a small number, less than 2%, but let’s compare it to other data on crime and background checks.  According to the FBI, less than .005 of all Americans committed violent crimes in 2012.  According to the FBI, NICS checks in 2012 resulted in .0025 denials, in raw numbers 88,000+ denials out of more than 19 million checks.

It seems to me that the new Colorado law is catching a lot more disqualified people trying to acquire guns than what flows through the national background check system.  I’m not surprised, given the fact that individuals with criminal records know that they probably can’t get through a NICS background check.  But there’s plenty of data which correlates criminal behavior with higher levels of gun violence.

I’m not saying that people who want to use a gun for the wrong reasons won’t be able to find a way to get a gun with or without extended background checks.  What I am saying is that for all the talk about whether background checks make it more difficult for disqualified individuals to acquire guns, at least the data from Colorado gives us something tangible against which we can test our beliefs.  And discussions on any public policy issue, both pro and con, should always start from the point at which facts begin and opinions come to an end.  Which is why I have published more than 90 posts about guns.

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