The bad news is that Kansas has joined five other crazy states in allowing its residents to walk around carrying concealed handguns without any permitting process at all. The good news is that Oregon appears to become the fifteenth state that will extend NICS background checks to transactions that were not covered by the Brady legislation enacted in 1994. The evidence on whether folks with legal CCW privilege are greater threats to use their guns in unsafe ways is, however, still not clear. But there is virtual unanimity within public health and gun-sense advocacy circles that widening the NICS background check system to cover secondary transactions will substantially reduce gun crimes and rates of gun violence overall.
When it comes to gun violence, the public debate is driven by the degree to which guns in this country are connected in some way to a murder rate that is five to twenty times higher than any other country in the OECD. It’s not that we are a more violent country per se than places like England, Germany or France, it’s that our violence takes a much more lethal form, given the existence of all those guns. Despite silly attempts to challenge this argument to the contrary, the data is indisputable which shows the connection between homicide rates and guns. But the question that I am asking is whether our attempts to curb gun homicides has anything to do with NICS.
The Brady background check system was actually first proposed when a measure to impose a national, seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases was first introduced in 1987 and promptly failed. The measure was re-introduced in subsequent Congressional sessions until 1992 when, for the first time the law substituted a national background-check process in lieu of a waiting period and, more important, gained the support of President-elect Bill Clinton, who promised to sign the measure if he was in the White House after 1993. Which is exactly what happened one year later when, following Clinton’s election, a bill calling for a five-year phasing-in of NICS checks hit his Oval Office desk on November 30, 1993 and took effect in February, 1994.
The year that the law first went into effect – 1994 – there were 23,000 murders, of which 16,000, or 46% were committed with guns. The increase in violent crimes of all types over the previous decade was a major factor in the final passage of the Brady bill, as it would be with the crime bill and ten-year assault weapons ban which Clinton signed at the end of 1994. Within three months after NICS checks first started up in 1994, the ATF published a report which claimed that Brady had prevented 5% of all handgun purchases because the prospective buyer was a felon or some other type of ‘prohibited’ person, which was “proof” that NICS checks could and reduce violent crime.
Over the past 20 years since the Brady was passed (it became fully operational in 1998), the overall rate of violent crime has dropped by 45% and the murder rate by 52%; in some large cities, particularly New York, the decline has been upwards of 70% or more. How much of this decline can be tied to any one factor is yet to be fully explained, but the fact is that violent crime, particular homicides, is a far less serious issue than before the government began to use the NICS system to control access to guns.
On the other hand, if our murder rate has been going down, the degree to which murders are committed with guns has been going up. In 2000, guns were used in 65% of all murders; in 2005 guns were used in 68% of homicides, in 2010 guns were the weapons of choice in murders again to the tune of 68%. It looks to me like our murder rate has dropped by nearly 50% since 1994 while the rate of guns used in homicides has increased by about the same amount. Isn’t this the reverse of what NICS is supposed to achieve?