Do Comprehensive Background Checks Reduce Gun Violence? Not So Far.

Last week I posted a detailed paper on the Social Science Research Network in which I examined the arguments made by public health researchers and gun-control advocacy groups about the relationship between gun laws and gun violence; i.e., the stronger and more comprehensive the gun-control laws, the more gun violence goes down.

Figure 2              You can download and read the paper here, but I can save you some time by summarizing what I said. In brief, the point I made about the more gun laws = less gun violence is that the causal relationship between these two factors is vague, at best, and the way in which Brady and Giffords go about defining and judging the efficacy of different laws leaves some pretty big gaps.

The problem with trying to figure out whether any particular law will have any particular effect is that the only way to come up with a reasonably-accurate analysis is to compare the relevant behavior both before and after the law is passed.  But even studies which compare before-and-after behavior on what would appear to be a simple issue like speed limits and accident rates, often cannot take into account all the myriad social factors which affect a certain type of behavior beyond the existence or non-existence of a certain law. And if we know one thing about the behavior which produces gun violence, or any kind of violence for that matter, the origins, incidence and reasons for this behavior are terribly complicated and not given to any kind of simple or single cause.

On the other hand, for the first time we finally can look at the effects of a major change in gun laws, not just in terms of whether the new law made any real difference in gun violence rates, but whether the legal change met the expectations and claims of the advocate community which pushed for the change. I am referring to requiring FBI-NICS background checks for all gun transfers, which is probably Gun-control Nation’s single, most cherished goal, particularly because it happens to be the gun law where even gun owners appear to be falling into line; a recent public health survey found that more than 80% of both gun owners and non-gun owners agreed that comprehensive FBI-NICS checks were a good thing.

According to Brady, only 7 states currently impose comprehensive background checks on all gun sales. But four of these states – Colorado, Delaware, New York, Washington – passed their laws after the unspeakable tragedy at Newtown-Sandy Hook. As of 2014, all four states required that any change in the ownership of any kind of gun had to be validated by the intervention of a gun dealer who would initiate a background check. None of these states had a comprehensive background check law prior to 2014.

And here are the results by state, gun-violence rate and two years prior and two years after passage of a comprehensive background check law:

State 2012 2013 2015 2016
CO 2.22 2.01 2.51 2.91
DE 5.02 4.11 5.61 4.62
NY 2.22 1.93 2.07 1.98
WA 1.84 1.66 2.26 2.00


Note that New York was the only state which showed a decline in gun violence after a comprehensive law was passed, but this anomaly is probably explained by the aggressive, anti-gun program of the New York City cops. In Erie County, which includes Buffalo, the 2013 gun-violence rate was 4.1, it then dipped in 2015 to 3.88, but in 2016 went back to 4.1.

In a recent study that attempted to differentiate the impact of comprehensive background checks (CBC), as opposed to CBC which also required specific licensing for each gun sale (permit to purchase or PTP), researchers found “no benefit of a CBC system without a PTP law.”  But what if comprehensive background checks, rather than yielding no result, actually coincide with a significant increase in gun-violence rates? Oops! That’s not what gun-control laws are supposed to do. Not at all.


4 thoughts on “Do Comprehensive Background Checks Reduce Gun Violence? Not So Far.

  1. Not sure about the other states, but NYS has had very strict, may-issue handgun ownership laws (not just carry laws but strict controls simply to own a handgun) since the passage of the Sullivan Act, about 100 yrs ago. Since I suspect most gun crime in the Empire State is with handguns, I suspect the newly instituted UBCs on rifles and shotguns would have a minor effect on overall gun violence. Indeed, NYS’s tough handgun laws existed before, during, and after the crime scurge of the ’80s and 90’s. Its other stuff that controlled crime.

    Indeed, it is most likely NYC’s aggressive assaults on illegal possession that I suspect has the greatest impact. Meanwhile, Buffalo, mainly on the East side which is still suffering from the shattering effects of the last half century of white flight and job flight, is in rough shape and that’s where the shootings are. Just got back from visiting my family in Buffalo, by the way, and every day the news had a story about a shooting.

    Full disclosure. I have a NYS pistol permit, as does my younger brother and old man. The may-issue details vary strongly by the politics of each county, irregardless of one’s squeaky-cleanliness or rationale for wanting one.

  2. Severe punishment for gun crime is a better way to reduce gun crimes. Do away with plea bargain and make the punishment mandatory. Stop the sympathy crap for the law violations. The problem is that the criminal element have more rights than law abiding people. With the ton of anti gun laws on the books , you would think someone would come to the conclusion that we need to make laws that effects the criminal or the would be criminal instead of attacking the law abiding people.

    • Cecil, there’s no way our criminal injustice system can work without plea bargains. They’d have to give up the gravy train war on drugs & they’re not going to do that any time soon. To suggest that they would give them up is very naive.

      The first line of defense against crime is having positive social dynamics that encourage a harmonious society. Right now we move more & more toward negative social dynamics & more crime. Prof Roth’s book on the subject is a great place to start:

      American Homicide

      Today, we live in a world of the progressives’ creation, somewhere halfway between socialism and liberty. It is a volatile mixture. It is a world increasingly ruled by force; force wielded by a powerfully armed government. Whether it is the force of the income tax, the force of compulsory education, the force of regulation, or the force of law enforcement the effects are clear to all willing to see: a society becoming sicker and more aggressive. We’ve sunk a long way since 1850 when a Frenchman, Frederick Bastiat, wrote in his book “The Law”:

      “Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy society itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation.”

      They’re sure not talking about us like that in France anymore! Progressivism has failed to achieve its lofty ideals. Instead it has created our present situation of crime and murder, war and empire. It is this failure that the advocates of gun control want to cover up. Instead of facing reality they want to blame guns for the problems the implementation of their ideas has created.

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