Of all the gun-control measures touted by President Obama on Wednesday, the one that got top billing was a dramatic tightening of background checks on gun purchasers. Obama himself said the need was urgent because “40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check.” But before we make the most sweeping changes in federal firearms law since the 1960s, shouldn’t we at least examine the validity of that figure? It’s about as dubious as they come.
The administration is focusing on background checks in an attempt to drive a wedge between staunch anti-gun-control absolutists such as the National Rifle Association and the average gun owner. Background checks are easily the most popular proposal out there. A new poll by the Pew Research Center shows the public closely divided on banning “assault weapons,” but 85 percent of those surveyed supported universal background checks. “If you look at the combination of likelihood of passage and effectiveness of curbing gun crime, universal background checks is at the sweet spot,” New York senator Chuck Schumer told reporters this week.
Most advocates of gun control believe the “loopholes” in federal law are the rule and not the exception when it comes to gun purchases. A 2011 study by the office of New York mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed that “40 percent of guns are sold through private sellers.” His study went on to says “these sales — which take place in many venues, including gun shows and, increasingly, on the internet . . . fuel the black market for illegal guns.”
Current federal law requires anyone who is “engaged in the business” of selling guns to get a license and have any sales go through law-enforcement background checks — whether those sales occur in a shop or in a gun show. If a gun is sold over the Internet, a background check is mandatory. As Breitbart News reported: “If a resident of Denver bought a gun from a store in Tampa, the (licensee) in Tampa would send the gun to (a licensee) in Denver. Once it arrived, the buyer would pay a fee for shipping, taxes on the gun, as well as any mark-up for services. He would also have to submit to a back-ground check just as if he had bought the gun off a shelf in Denver.” In all cases, sales are denied if the person attempting to buy a gun has a felony conviction or, in many cases, a misdemeanor conviction, or if he has a history of mental illness.
The guns that Obama, Bloomberg, and others claim escape background checks are those sold or transferred between private parties. But can that number really be 40 percent?
The dubious statistic of guns that avoided background checks — which is actually 36 percent — comes from a small 251-person survey on gun sales two decades ago, very early in the Clinton administration. Most of the survey covered sales before the Brady Act instituted mandatory federal background checks in early 1994.
If that alone didn’t make the number invalid, the federal survey simply asked buyers if they thought they were buying from a licensed firearms dealer. While all Federal Firearm Licensees do background checks, only those perceived as being FFLs were counted. Yet, there is much evidence that survey respondents who went to the smallest FFLs, especially the “kitchen table” types, had no idea that the dealer was actually “licensed.” Many buyers seemed to think that only “brick and mortar” stores were licensed dealers, and so the survey underestimating the number of sales covered by the checks.
Another reason for the high number is that it includes guns transferred as inheritances or as gifts from family members. Even President Obama’s background proposal excludes almost all of those transfers.
If you look at guns that were bought, traded, borrowed, rented, issued as a requirement of the job, or won through raffles, 85 percent went through Federal Firearm Licensees and would have been subject to a background check. Only 15 percent would have been transferred without a background check.
Economist John Lott, the author of several landmark studies on the real-world impact of gun control, has concluded that if you take out transfers of guns either between FFLs or between family members, the remaining number of transfers falls to about 10 percent. Those were the numbers from two decades ago. “We don’t know the precise number today, but it is hard to believe that it is above single digits,” he told me.
Lott says that before any universal background system is passed, flaws in the current system should be fixed. If they aren’t they could lead to “unforeseen” tragedies that would outweigh the benefits of any expanded background-check system.
Lott notes that 8 percent of background checks are initially denied, with almost all of the delays until they are finally approved taking three days or longer. When the reviews were finally finished, 94 percent of “initial delays” were dropped because they were cases of mistaken identity.
Delays are undoubtedly just an inconvenience for most people buying guns. But for a few, such as those in imminent fear of a stalker or others who suddenly need a gun for self-defense, universal-background-check laws could prevent them from defending themselves against assailants.
Lott says his research suggests that expanding background checks “might actually contribute to a slight net increase in violent crime, particularly rapes.” Before we expand background checks he suggests we focus on the real-world statistics, not Obama’s “magical” number, and recognize that criminals are seldom burdened by background checks because they buy weapons on the black market. As for gun bans, they do little to combat crime. When guns were banned in Washington, D.C., or Chicago, the rate of violent crime went up. Even in island nations such as Great Britain, Ireland, and Jamaica, murder rates went up after gun bans were put in place.
And as for background checks, even the most vigorously policed would have done nothing to stop the killers at Newtown or the theater in Aurora, Colo. Adam Lanza stole his guns from his mother’s storage locker after murdering her, and Joseph Holmes’ problems with mental illness were not reported to authorities by his psychologist.
Lott says that it may well be that expanded background checks are reasonable, but only if flaws and delays with the current system are addressed and a cost/benefit analysis is conducted. As he says “passing gun-control laws may make people feel better, but they can actually prevent people from defending themselves.”