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.

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Want To Carry A Gun Anywhere? A Democrat May Have Just Provided The Chance.

You may recall that for many years both the State of Idaho and the NRA were represented in the U.S. Senate by Larry Craig, who until he was arrested for tying his shoes in an airport toilet, spent as much time promoting the interests of gun owners as he supported the interests of the voters who sent him to Capitol Hill.  In 1997 he crafted and submitted the first attempt to create a national concealed-carry licensing system which was basically patterned after the state-to-state reciprocity that we all enjoy when driving a car; namely, if it’s valid in one state, it’s valid in all.  Following Craig’s political demise, other pro-NRA politicians took up the issue of national CCW, continue to submit a bill every two years, and while the measure has never passed, it creeps steadily forward bit by bit.

I started thinking about national CCW when Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Representative who is running for the Senate, introduced legislation to create a permit-to-purchase (PTP) process to cover the transfer of all handguns by giving federal money to states in order to cover administrative costs.  Basically, the feds would pay each state that would implement some kind of pre-purchase vetting system requiring a background check prior to the FBI-NICS check that occurs when a federally-licensed dealer sells anyone a gun.  Van Hollen’s bill, which of course will go nowhere until Democrats regain control of Congress, would allow each state to establish its own rules for a background check process covering the transfer of all handguns, regardless of whether a subsequent NICS check also occurs.

ptp                The PTP process exists in a number of states, but it usually takes the form of some kind of general licensing procedure which then allows the licensee to acquire any number of guns as long as the PTP-issued license remains in effect.  New Jersey, on the other hand, requires a separate permit for the purchase of any handgun; New York City goes one better by requiring that each handgun purchase requires not only an individual permit but also a police inspection of the weapon before the transfer is complete.  Most states imposing any degree of PTP usually issue a blanket eligibility or ownership license but all guns acquired from dealers must still undergo the NICS check.

Basically, any form of PTP imposed on buying a gun would both slow down the process, as well as weed out people whose gun access would represent what we are all trying to prevent, namely, guns getting into the ‘wrong hands.’   To support his national PTP bill, Van Hollen cited a new study by researchers from Johns Hopkins  which examined the impact of the Connecticut PTP law that went into effect in 1995 and may have contributed to saving as many as 300 lives over the following ten years. While the PTP implemented by Connecticut may or may not be a basis for comparing the outcome to what would happen in other states with other PTP laws, it’s pretty hard to ignore what happened to Connecticut’s gun homicide rate after the PTP went into effect.

Leave it to the NRA of course to both pooh-pooh Van Hollen’s bill and get it wrong when it claimed that its members “don’t want to ask permission of the federal government to exercise constitutional right,” even though the law would help states, not the feds, keep guns out of the wrong hands. But you would think that someone at NRA headquarters would realize that Van Hollen’s bill would be the perfect vehicle for getting the holy grail of all gun bills passed, namely, a bill extending concealed-carry in all 50 states.

If the NRA would stop pretending to be the valiant defender of the 2nd Amendment, they could offer something both logical and reasonable for both gun safety and gun rights. Because what Van Hollen wants for PTP is what basically exists for driver’s licenses, which is what the NRA wants for CCW as well.  Who’s going to blink first?