Universal Background Checks Don’t Work

Need numbers for proof?

Universal Background Checks: Shouldn’t We Review the Statistics?

One of the wonderful aspects of America’s experiment with federalism is that it gives us fifty laboratories, where each state can experiment with different ways of solving social problems and see what works. What troubles me about the current headlong rush towards a national universal background check requirement is how little attention we have paid to the thirteen states that have already performed the experiment.

I have recently finished a detailed paper using interrupted time series analysis of the relationship between background check laws and murder rate. This article is something of an advance warning — and yes, was conducted because a vote was coming up in Congress (and which, who knows, may come up again).

What startles from my paper’s findings is how ineffective those laws have been at what should be the most important measure: murder rate.

Of the twelve states that still have these private party background check laws, four adopted them before 1960, so the relatively consistent murder rate data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports program can’t be used to test the hypothesis. Of the remaining eight, changes in murder rates are only statistically significant (at the 95% confidence interval) for five: three had an increase in murder rates after adopting mandatory background checks, two had a decrease in murder rates.

Of the three that were statistically insignificant, two states had increases in murder rates, and one had a decrease.

Here’s a harsh truth: people that commit murder are not ordinary Americans, and do not obey laws. As the director of the National Institute of Justice recently observed in a leaked memo to the White House, a 2000 study found that 26% of criminal guns were stolen (often from retail stores or in transit), and 8% were the result of retail diversion by corrupt dealers. None of these criminal transactions will be affected by a background check law.

In addition, 47% of criminal guns were obtained through straw purchasers. This is already a crime, for which you can get a five-year prison sentence. But as police chiefs and U.S. attorneys admitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee a few weeks ago, they don’t have time to prosecute these straw purchasers right now. Will they have more time to prosecute people who neglect or intentionally skip the background check requirement?

The Gun Debate: Gun crime prosecutions on decline, amid call for more laws

However, recent studies show the Obama administration has not enforced many gun laws already on books — with gun crime prosecutions hitting a decade low in 2011, down 40 percent from their peak under President George W. Bush in 2004, according to federal data crunched by Syracuse University. The SU study prompted 23 House Republicans on Friday to call on President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute more people for gun-related crimes.

The Syracuse study found the number of federal weapons prosecutions fell from about 11,000 in 2004 to about 6,000 under the Obama administration in 2011 — and ticked up to 7,770 in 2012.

The GOP letter also cited data from the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS), which found in 2010, of 6 million Americans who applied to buy a gun, less than 2 percent — or 76,000 — were denied. Of those, the ATF referred 4,732 cases for prosecution. Of them, just 44 were prosecuted, and only 13 were punished for lying or buying a gun illegally.

The background laws already exist.  What is the point of having laws if they aren’t enforced?  And what is the point of slathering even more laws onto the already huge burden of laws already on the books if none of them are going to be enforced?


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