According to rumor, the White House will shortly close a legal loophole that currently lets a large number of guns move from one set of hands to another without a background check. Evidently Obama will issue an EO that redefines what it means to be a gun dealer by substantially reducing the number of private transfers that can be made, thereby forcing gun owners to acquire a federal license which will effectively require that every gun transfer beyond a minimum number go through a NICS-background check.
Which brings up the ultimate question, namely, if we had universal background checks, what would this mean in terms of reducing gun violence overall? Right now the CDC tells us there are 30,000+ intentional gun deaths and 65,000 intentional gun injuries every year. There are also 17,000+ unintentional gun injuries, fatal and non-fatal, each year. We can probably discount most, if not nearly all unintentional injuries because they usually involve the legal owner of a gun and/or his/her children or friends. We can also discount the 20,000+ suicides, which leaves somewhere around 75,000 acts of gun violence each year for which, in theory, universal background checks should help reduce the toll. But by how much?
In fairness to the researchers who are concerned with this problem, they were not trying to figure out the impact of universal background checks per se. Webster and Wintemute have come up with a very comprehensive summary of research on the effects of policies designed to “keep firearms from high-risk individuals” published between 1999 and 2014. This article covers more than 60 peer-reviewed works and looks both at policies designed to regulate the supply of guns to high-risk individuals (i.e., dealer practices) and policies designed to make it more difficult for high-risk individuals to get their hands on guns (i.e., background checks and other licensing practices.)
I’ll leave a discussion about dealer practices for another time, insofar as our concern here is the issue of universal background checks. As for that question, W&W argue that the prohibited persons categories defined by GCA68 and used as the basis for disqualifying transactions through NICS “would not disqualify the majority of individuals who commit gun violence.” What does seem to have a significant impact on gun violence is where states have gone beyond the federal definitions of prohibited persons and passed laws that make it easier to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
The most rigorous licensing in this regard is known as Permit to Purchase (PTP), which requires that the purchase of every gun, in particular handguns, be approved following an application to acquire the specific gun. This is, in fact, the procedure in New York City since the 1911 implementation of the Sullivan Law, but there is virtually no connection between how this law has been administered over the past century and changes in the rates of violent crime. On the other hand, W&W cite numerous studies, including Webster’s study of the effect of abolishing PTP in Missouri, which indicate that when states strengthen the licensing process beyond NICS-background checks, gun-violence rates tend to go down.
The evidence to date does not appear to support the notion that universal background checks will have a substantial impact on gun-violence rates unless it is accompanied by more rigorous gun-control policies at the state level. Which is not an argument against universal checks, just a warning about setting expectations too high. What I find frustrating in the whole ‘guns in the wrong hands’ discussion, however, is the continued lack of interest or concern about stolen guns. Webster and colleagues studied the source of 250+ crime guns used by prison inmates in 13 states and as many as 85% of those guns could have entered the illegal market through theft. This situation won’t change because we strengthen the licensing process for acquisition of new guns; it just requires diligence for the guns we already own.