Last week, the House Judiciary Committee began to consider legislation that would require a universal background check for all transfers of firearms. Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) intoned that Congress must “at last take real action to address this [gun death] crisis.” Committee member Mary Gay Scanlon (D., Pa.) added: “We’re at a critical moment where we can save the lives of thousands of Americans, and if we can, I think we must.”
The proposed legislation would expand the present system of background checks for commercial sales of firearms to include, with limited exceptions, all transfers of firearms by private individuals who aren’t in the day-to-day business of selling guns. It appears to be premised on the belief that background checks are a useful means to keep guns out of the wrong hands. But are they?
Under current law, commercial firearms vendors must hold a license issued by the federal government and must conduct a background check on anyone attempting to buy a gun.
A purchaser must verify in writing and under penalty of law that, among other things, he is not under criminal indictment; a convicted criminal; a fugitive from justice; a drug addict or user of controlled substances; an adjudicated “mental defective;” someone who had been committed to a mental institution; someone who was dishonorably discharged from the Armed Forces; or subject to a court order restraining him from stalking, harassing, or threatening his child, “intimate partner,” or child of such a partner. He must also verify that he has never been convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence, has never renounced his U.S. citizenship, and is not here illegally.
All of the foregoing sworn information is then checked against the FBI’s records. If the purchaser is cleared by the FBI, then the sale may be completed.
Such background checks and transfers can be expensive. For example, in the Philadelphia area, owners will spend between $50 to $100. The amount to be charged is not consistently regulated across states.
But the proposed legislation would require that, subject to certain exemptions, transfers or even temporary loans of firearms by private gun owners to others must be made through a federally licensed firearms dealer. For example, if a private gun owner were to give or loan a firearm to a close friend for home defense, that would require a trip and payment of a fee to a federally licensed dealer.
On its face, the proposed requirement of “universal” background checks would clearly burden gun ownership by law-abiding citizens. But would it materially reduce the number of gun deaths? Three recent studies indicate no.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2017 there were 39,773 firearm deaths. Of these, the CDC found that 23,854 were suicides. The remaining deaths were classified as either “homicide” (14,542),“unintentional” (486), “undetermined” (338), or “legal intervention/operations of war” (553).
In other words, 60 percent of the firearm deaths were self-inflicted.
Will universal background checks keep guns out of the hands of people contemplating suicide? And, even if they had that effect, will they reduce the number of suicides? Or will persons determined to kill themselves resort to some other lethal means?
Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins, University of California-Davis, and New York University medical schools, with Universidad Mayor in Chile, published a study of the effect of California’s comprehensive background checks on that state’s suicide and homicide rates. Examining data pertaining to suicides and homicides committed with firearms from 1981 to 2000, they found that after implementing its background check law in 1991, the state did not see a net change in either the suicide or homicide rate. To the extent that the rate of suicides fluctuated yearly, they found that changes in the rate of firearm suicides were similar to changes in non-firearm suicides.
In January 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau issued a report titled “Source and Use of Firearms Involved in Crimes: Survey of Prison Inmates, 2016.” It provides a statistical analysis of where and how state and federal prison inmates obtained firearms that they either possessed or used in the commission of their crimes.
Of the prisoners who used firearms in committing crimes, such as murder, robbery, and burglary, 1.3 percent obtained their guns from a retail source. Among those who possessed a firearm during their offense, 0.8 percent obtained it at a gun show. Instead, the most common source of firearms for these prisoners had been the "off the street/underground market,” whose participants were likely not complying with background check laws.
If these studies are correct, it appears that background checks for commercial sales have neither reduced the number of gun deaths, nor kept firearms out of the hands of criminals. So, why should we expect universal background checks to produce a different result? And why should Congress impose yet one more regulatory burden on 90 million law-abiding gun owners who pose no demonstrable threat to their fellow citizens?