The Corner

On Background Checks

The Washington Post reports that the White House is likely to push for universal background checks for gun buyers. This will be no panacea for gun violence, but it is probably the gun-control policy most likely to make a difference.

Under current law, licensed firearms dealers are required to run instant background checks on all buyers. However, once an individual person owns a gun, he is not required to take this precaution when selling it — it’s illegal to knowingly sell to a felon, but knowledge is not always present, and it’s hard to prove even when it is. (These private sales are what people are talking about when they refer to the “gun-show loophole.” It has nothing to do with gun shows — the same rules apply there.)

This poses obvious problems for law enforcement. The police can trace a crime gun to its original buyer — dealers are required to keep sales records for 20 years — but if that person says he sold it to a stranger through a classified ad, the trail goes dead. The precise numbers are hard to peg down, but research shows clearly that a large percentage of crime guns are procured through private transfers.

This was true even before background checks started in the 1990s. After all, it would be pretty stupid to buy a gun from a store, fill out the paperwork (which has been required at dealers since 1968), and then leave the weapon at a crime scene. Instead, criminals buy guns from other people without paperwork, have someone else fill out the paperwork and pass the check at a dealer (these “straw purchases” are a major source of weaponry for Mexican drug cartels), or steal guns.

Universal background checks would help us hold people accountable for giving guns to criminals. When the police traced a gun to the original buyer, that person could no longer simply say he didn’t have it anymore; unless he’d documented a sale and conducted a check (or filed a police report claiming it was stolen), he could be investigated for an illegal transaction. This would make straw purchases more risky and prevent criminals from buying guns freely from private citizens.

Of course, this wouldn’t completely stop criminals from getting guns. Some people would file false police reports, saying their guns had been stolen when in fact they’d sold them, though this would look suspicious if it happened more than once. Some people, facing an accusation that they’d sold a gun illegally, would say it had been taken without their knowledge (for example, by a criminal boyfriend) and they didn’t notice it missing. Further, this system obviously will not be as effective when it comes to guns originally sold before the date of enactment (the original buyer could say he sold it without a check before it was illegal to, even if he sold it after). Guns last a long time.

There are also some questions about implementation. California requires universal checks, and achieves this by requiring licensed dealers to run checks for private sales. Dealers may charge $35 for the service; another option would be to have the government pick up the tab to avoid punishing law-abiding gun owners. (In their rush to make gun owners pay for the negative externalities of gun ownership, liberals forget that gun ownership has positive externalities too.) It might even be possible to set up an online system with rigorous identity verification so that private sellers and buyers can conduct the checks themselves.

Another question will be how to handle gifts. If parents buy their child a .22 rifle when he’s twelve (as my parents did for me), does the child need to get a background check to take that gun with him when he moves out years later? If an adult buys his father a gun, does the father need to be the one to pick up the gun and fill out the paperwork?

Finally, once a concrete proposal is made, we should take a hard look at the price tag and ask whether that money would be more helpful if put to a different use.

With all of that said, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask private gun sellers to make sure they’re not giving weapons to criminals, especially if background checks can be made convenient and cheap. This will not end gun violence — it would not have stopped Adam Lanza, for example — but there’s a good chance it could help stem the flow of guns to criminals and cartels. It’s certainly not the worst idea the gun-control crowd has come up with.


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