Politics & Policy

The Corner

Study Finds Background-Check Laws in Wa. and Colo. Did Nothing

In the Guardian, Lois Beckett highlights a new study that has found that background-check laws in Washington and Colorado have “had little measurable effect”:

In Colorado and Washington state, advocates spent millions of dollars, and two Colorado Democrats lost their seats, in the effort to pass laws requiring criminal background checks on every single gun sale.

More than three years later, researchers have concluded that the new laws had little measurable effect, probably because citizens simply decided not to comply and there was a lack of enforcement by authorities.

The results of the new study, conducted by some of America’s most well-respected gun violence researchers, is a setback for a growing gun control movement that has centered its national strategy on precisely the kind of state laws passed in Colorado and Washington. A third, smaller state, Delaware, passed a background check law around the same time and did see increases in the number of background checks conducted, the study found. But a similar background-check law in Nevada passed in 2016 has also run into political hurdles and has never been enforced.

“These aren’t the results I hoped to see. I hoped to see an effect. But it’s much more important to see what’s actually happened,” said Garen Wintemute, one of the study’s authors. Wintemute is a University of California Davis emergency room physician and has been conducting public health research on gun violence for decades, sometimes self-funding his research when federal funding dried up.

As Beckett notes, the study:

did not attempt to analyze whether the new background check laws in Delaware, Colorado and Washington had any effect on gun violence or gun crime. Instead, it asked a simpler question: did a law requiring more background checks actually result in more background checks being conducted?

Fair enough. But in practice this is a distinction without a difference given that the entire rationale for such laws is that more background checks lead to less gun violence. If, in fact, such laws don’t lead to more background checks, then what’s the point in them? The only answer I can think of is, “because the law makes people more careful about to whom they sell guns.” But given that the authors’ operating theory for the failure in Washington and Colorado is that “citizens simply decided not to comply and there was a lack of enforcement by authorities,” even that seems weak.

Undoubtedly, we will hear that the lack of enforcement, rather than the law itself, is the problem. Indeed, Winutemen himself makes this claim:

The conclusion readers draw from the new study should not be that the background policy is “no good”, Wintemute said. “It’s evidence that these policies may need more assertive enforcement.”

To my ears, though, that argument not only sounds rather naive — how can you assertively enforce a law against transactions you don’t know about? — it also fails to take into account the trade-offs involved with any controversial piece of legislation. The sheriffs who have refused to prioritize the law are not doing so in a vacuum; they are doing so because they live in areas in which there is mass resistance to this sort of regulation, and because they do not wish to damage their relationships with their communities. In theory, those officers could be replaced, and the states in question could demand the stepping up of prosecutions post hoc. But at what cost? In rural areas especially, co-operation between the citizenry and the police is vital. Damage it, and things might get worse overall. (That, incidentally, is why the confiscation fantasy is so absurd; at a stroke you’d wipe out goodwill toward law enforcement and make policing much, much more difficult.)

For a long while now, gun-control advocates have sold background checks as a panacea of sorts, and implied that any skepticism toward them must be motivated less by earnest disagreement and more by greed or obstinacy. That a writer in the Guardian is citing “some of America’s most well-respected gun violence researchers” concluding that such “laws had little measurable effect” should damage that presumption considerably.

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