Published Monday, April 22, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:12 pm
Jacob Sullum: Background checks ineffective measure

After the Senate rejected a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers on Wednesday, President Barack Obama claimed “there were no coherent arguments” against it.

But in fact, the bill’s opponents argued, coherently and persuasively, that background checks are not an effective way to stop criminals from obtaining weapons.

Obama misleadingly asserts that background checks have “kept more than 2 million dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun” during the past two decades. It’s true that more than 2 million gun sales have been blocked since 1994 as a result of the background checks mandated by the Brady Act. But judging from the way law enforcement officials treat them, these people typically are not dangerous.

Anyone who buys a firearm from a federally licensed dealer has to fill out a form attesting that the transaction is permitted by federal law, which bars gun ownership by felons, fugitives, illegal drug users, illegal immigrants and people who have been involuntarily committed to mental hospitals, among other prohibited categories. Although lying on this form is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, sales blocked by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System rarely result in a federal investigation.

According to a 2004 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, the most common reason the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives chooses not to pursue these cases is that the buyer does not seem to pose a threat. “The special agents we spoke with generally commented that they do not consider the vast majority of NICS referral subjects a danger to the public,” the report said, “because the prohibiting factors are often minor or based on incidents that occurred many years in the past.”

The ATF’s handling of NICS referrals reflects two facts commonly ignored by background-check enthusiasts. First, the criteria for stripping people of their Second Amendment rights are absurdly (and unfairly) broad, sweeping pot growers, hubcap thieves and guys who got into a bar fight 20 years ago together with violent predators. Second, criminals generally do not buy their weapons in gun stores.

Even in surveys conducted before the Brady Act, only one-fifth of state prisoners who had used guns to commit crimes said they bought them from licensed dealers. In a 2004 survey, the share was just one-tenth.

Furthermore, a criminal turned away by a licensed dealer can always steal a gun, buy one from someone who does not run background checks or ask someone with a clean record to buy one for him. Obama is therefore doubly wrong to equate blocking sales through NICS with preventing “dangerous people” from “getting their hands on a gun.”

Given these realities, it is not surprising that a 2000 study by criminologists Philip Cook and Jens Ludwig found no evidence that the Brady Act had an impact on homicide rates. But according to advocates of expanded background checks, the problem is that the Brady Act did not go far enough.

One difficulty with that argument: As Cook and Ludwig note, most people who use guns to commit crimes — including almost all mass shooters — could have passed a background check. But what about the rest? Would they be thwarted by a broader screening requirement?

Probably not. Forcing private sellers at gun shows to arrange background checks with the help of licensed dealers is relatively straightforward. But in that 2004 inmate survey, less than 2 percent of respondents said they had bought weapons at gun shows.

Three sources accounted for almost nine out of 10 crime guns: friends or relatives (40 percent), the black market (38 percent) and theft (10 percent). It is hard to see how any national background check requirement, even one applying to all private transfers, would affect these sources.

As usual with gun control, the attempt to enforce such a requirement would impose costs and uncertain legal risks on law-abiding gun owners while leaving criminals free to go about their business.

Contact the writer: jsullum@reason.com

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