Will Universal Background Checks Solve The Problem Of Gun Violence? It’s A Start.

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.

conference program pic              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.


8 thoughts on “Will Universal Background Checks Solve The Problem Of Gun Violence? It’s A Start.

  1. “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.”

    Would you care to define ‘more rigorous gun-control policies’ so we can better know what you are saying?

  2. Pingback: Will Universal Background Checks Solve The Problem Of Gun Violence? It’s A Start. | Mister Journalism: "Read, Share, Discuss, Learn"

  3. Mike, I agree with pankr003. On one occasion you’ve mentioned to me your approach to reduce gun violence, but perhaps you can lay it out, in total here, for all of your readers.
    (If I’m correct, one point you bring up in this post is how the NICS data has a number of deficiencies in it.)

    • RE: What to do about gun violence. I like to keep things simple. So it goes like this. Somewhere between 300K and 500K guns are stolen every year. Now we have to assume that every one of these guns ends up in the ‘wrong hands.’ But meanwhile, do you hear anyone talking about anti-theft measures to bring down this number? No. And the reason you don’t is that we are fixated on ‘solutions’ that involve changes in public policy which means solutions that will give public agencies like the ATF something to do.
      If we can land a man on the moon it seems to me that we should be able to come up with technologies that would inhibit theft. Which would really put the horse in front of the cart. Right now we keep putting the cart before the horse.
      And btw, note that anti-theft technologies wouldn’t have anything to do with the 2nd Amendment at all.

  4. I agree that background checks alone will not effect gun deaths and injuries much. When there is lax enforcement of the rules the criminals will also be able to get guns by purchasing them under the table at gun shows or the internet. One reporter went to a gun show and watched purchases of guns just outside of the gun show doors in plain view of ATF agents. Many states and localities do not even require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns. Anyone can just buy a gun legally and sell it to a criminal for a profit and it never has to be reported or justified. I am a US citizen living in Portugal. Here registered gun owners have to pass a yearly firing exam at a gun range and inspection of the gun. You can check the difference in gun deaths between Portugal and the US! These are the only types of things that will keep the guns out of the wrong hands. Stricter enforcement and universal registration and licensing will keep many guns out of the illegal market and drive up the price of buying an illegal gun out of the reach of many criminals (good old capitalism at work).

  5. MTGG said: “If we can land a man on the moon it seems to me that we should be able to come up with technologies that would inhibit theft.”

    My car has a little red light that is some sort of anti-theft device that I did not want to pay for but had to. Maybe the government even required it. So to spite them I leave my keys in the ignition and do not lock the car….Now that is not literally true but shows how people can defeat something meant to keep the car from being stolen if their attitude is a problem. Cars are heavy so one cannot easily pick the car up but guns are not heavy in comparison. I think the technologies already exist to put a large dent in theft of guns. Safes are heavy if one wants to steal one. Locking boxes can be defeated but that takes time. Having burglar alarms reduces time available to defeat the boxes. There are the boxes with the buttons or other means to open them up instead of keys if one wants to be able to get into the box if the bad guys come visiting but when people are in their homes the chance of theft must be a lot smaller than when they leave. Guns don’t steal people do and it takes two people. First there are the thieves and second there are the enablers who do not secure their guns when they leave home. Not wanting to secure weapons before leaving home is an attitude problem I think more than a technical one. Thousands of people were motivated to send people to the moon but I am skeptical about how many are motivated to prevent thefts until after they are a victim.

  6. Thanks Mike.
    I think all you guys are making good points here. Theft is almost certainly the main source for crime guns. Purchase w/o a background check is another, but likely quite a bit smaller.
    Straw purchasers are in there somewhere as well.
    My personal guess is that “bad apple” gun dealers contribute only a small number of crime guns. (And some are not so much “bad apple” as just doing high-volume business in areas that have high crime.)
    One problem with attempting to counter gun theft is the fact that it requires gun owners to take extra caution, buy a safe or lock-box, etc, and be responsible within their domicile, as pankr003 says. But to tackle the flow of guns to the bad guys it must be done.

    Background check laws are more of a low-hanging fruit, which is why they’re the first thing promoted. They will help, if tightly written and enforced. But they sure have limits.

  7. Mike, I don’t know if this is permitted, but it would be cool if you could do a “fun” post every now & then; basically, write about guns & shooting activities for all us gun enthusiasts. (Who knows, the folks at Huffington might even learn something.)

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