Checking the Logic of Background Checks

Would a broader screening requirement for gun buyers reduce violent crime?


Urging Congress to expand background checks for gun buyers, President Obama claims the current system has "kept more than 2 million dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun" during the last two decades. If you understand why that claim is misleading, you will understand why background checks are not an effective way to stop criminals from obtaining weapons.

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 (NICS) rarely result in a federal investigation, let alone prosecution.

According to a 2004 report by the Justice Department's inspector general, the most common reason the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) 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 a 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 J. Cook and Jens Ludwig found no evidence that the Brady Act had an impact on homicide rates. But according to supporters 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 or flea markets.

Three sources accounted for almost nine out of 10 crime guns: "friends or family" (40 percent), "the street" (38 percent), and theft (10 percent). It is hard to see how any notional background check requirement, even one applying to all private transfers, can reasonably be expected to have a significant impact on 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.

NEXT: Misfiring

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. According to a 2004 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general, the most common reason the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) chooses not to pursue these cases is that the buyer does not seem to pose a threat.

    Arbitrary is the very best kind of trary.

    Universal background checks aren’t about effectiveness, they’re about feelings and about getting that owner database completed.

    1. Security theater

    2. Universal background checks aren’t about protecting anyone. They’re about controlling everyone, and making anyone who resists control into felons.

      1. like John replied I’m amazed that someone able to earn $7507 in one month on the internet. did you read this web link

        1. Brody. I can see what your saying… Earl`s blog is amazing, last friday I got themselves a Jaguar E-type since getting a cheque for $4865 this-past/five weeks and-in excess of, ten grand this past month. this is certainly my favourite job Ive ever had. I actually started five months/ago and straight away startad bringin home at least $87 per-hr. I work through this link
          (Go to site and open “Home” for details)

  2. Background checks have kept 2 million guns out of dangerous hands.

    How do we know they were dangerous?

    Because they didn’t pass a background check.

    Why didn’t they pass the background check?

    Because they were dangerous.

    Why are they dangerous?

    Because they didn’t pass a background check.

    Brilliant bit of circular logic.

    1. All political decisions made to take advantage of a tragedy righteous decisions are dictated by emotion, logic is only used by those who don’t care about the children.

      You evil, children hating, teathuglican racist. I bet you even hate women and the gays.

      1. Remember that gun purchasers who have had stormy love affairs can lose a Constitutional right by merely being accused. What if the same rules applied to the NYT? Viva la revolucion.

    2. Yes, background checks did keep guns out of the hands of 2 million dangerous people!

      They also created or saved six million jobs, kept the unemployment rate from rising over 8%, lowered the cost of health insurance for every American, ended two wars, produced the most transparent Administration in history, et cetera, et cetera, usw….

      1. Btw – remember that any person certified under state law to use cannabis for medical purposes is deemed “dangerous” and is unable to pass a gun background check.

      2. Background checks did not keep guns out of the hands of 2 million dangerous people. They inconvenienced 1,900,998 innocent citizens. Ask any licensed dealer. Gun ownership is the only Constitutional right that can be forfeited over a petty misdemeanor, or even non-criminal acts, such as legal use of medical marijuana. Viva la revolucion.

    3. if 20 years ago someone was convicted of a felony , ie shoplifting over $100, they would be denied today, such a dangerous person!!!

  3. Just do something! Now! The Children!

  4. You know who else didn’t seem a threat because of a minor incidents or ones that occurred many years in the past…

    1. George W Bush?
      Ted Kennedy?
      Mary Stack?

    2. Bill Ayers?
      Bernadine Dohrn?
      Kathy Boudin?
      Jamal Joseph?
      Angela Davis?

    3. Elmo’s Handler?

    4. The Punisher?
      Officer Alex Murphy?

    5. Anthony Weiner?

    6. Episiarch’s Mom?

  5. 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.

    That is how Jonathan Jackson got his guns for his 1970 day of adventure in the Marin County courthouse. An obscure college teacher named Angela Davis purchased his hardware for him from a gun dealer. Her story seems to have faded from this issue for some odd reason.

    1. And where did she teach from 1991 to 2008? UC Santa Cruz, the erudite institution that graced the world with Ezra Klein.

      Go, Banana Slugs!

      1. She bought those guns less than 2 years after the 1968 Gun Control Act went into effect. Maybe she needs to be mentioned whenever anybody brings this topic up, including Klein.

    2. I just puked my lunch up. I had forgotten about Davis so I googled her. This jumped out at me;

      “She is a retired professor with the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is the former director of the university’s Feminist Studies department.”

      History of Consciousness Dept? Holy sheeeeeeit.

  6. President Obama claims the current system has “kept more than 2 million dangerous people from getting their hands on a gun” during the last two decades.

    I think the more important point to folks like Obama and Feinstein is that the current system has put tens or hundreds of millions of guns in anyones’s hands over the last twenty years. They don’t care so much about the ones who got denied. They only want more denials, and more hoops to jump through, and more ostracization of those sick.indicates viduals who want to own a *shudder* weapon.

    1. I propose that, in the interest of public safety, that Native Americans be prohibited from purchasing firearms.

      Two years from now, when we see gun violence in that community has decreased, we can begin expanding that to gun purchasers of another race.

      1. Don’t forget the assault high capacity militaristic pressure cookers.
        Viva la revolucion.

  7. This is all about effectively making gun purchases a real pain in the ass for law-abiding citizens.

    1. The goal is no guns, period. The method of choice is incrementalism.

      1. You’ve got it.

        That is why my answer for any and all proposed regulations is now “Fuck you, NO.”

  8. Where is the article called “Tom Friedman Writes a Post-Boston Bombing Op-Ed Straight Out of 2001” which is supposed to be here according to Reason’s front page?

    1. That indicates a pre-4/15 mindset to me.

  9. the most common reason ATF chooses not to pursue these cases [blocked by the National Instant Criminal Background Check System] is that the buyer does not seem to pose a threat.

    Yet, they seem to pose enough of a threat to be denied a weapon purchase.

  10. I am waiting for the moment that Obama uses the explosives at the Boston Marathon as a reason to pass “common sense” gun control legislation while be is in Boston.

    1. Turns out pot really is bad.

    2. Don’t you mean “common sense” pressure cooker legislation?

  11. Reaally, when you think about it, we need common sense legislation to register all sales of pressure cookers, nails, BBs, ball bearings, black powder, fertilizer, desiel fuel, gasoline, and any household item used by McGyver or featured in an Al Queda training video.

    1. You forgot to include individual thought in there.

  12. If they really wanted to study the issue they should look at California which already requires all gun sales to go through a licensed dealer.
    Of course they won’t do that study since it will only prove the falsity of their claims that background checks stop crime.

  13. Question #11a on the background check –
    “Are you purchasing this firearm for someone other than yourself?”

    Yes? Denied.

    1. Isn’t that what Mark Kelly did? I didn’t see him at the press conference standing next to his wife after he got busted buying an AR-15.

  14. That these facts do not deter the most vocal proponents of so-called universal background checks is clear evidence of their true motivation to gain a foothold and use the next tragedy that was not prevented or preventable to ratchet up to a registration scheme and ultimately to confiscate, cloaked in user-friendly terms like “buy back” or prohibitions on transfers, including those like a father or mother handing down their firearms to their children. It is somewhat encouraging to see that despite the misinformation perpetuated by the President and supporters, that the legislation is not a slam dunk.

  15. Step One: pass a series of “reasonable”, “common-sense” laws to curb gun violence.

    Step Two: dismiss all arguments of a slippery slope as the paranoid ravings of NRA-brainwashed lunatics.

    Step Three: when your measures have no effect on gun violence, insist on new, more restrictive measures, since the original ones obviously “weren’t enough.” Repeat step two.

    Step Four: when even your new measures prove ineffective, insist that the real problem is that we just don’t have enough studies being done to prove how effective they really are. Call for every unrelated government institution to stop what they’re doing and get busy proving how dangerous guns are.


    1. Obviously these instructions are for my fellow Democrats. Viva la revolucion.

    1. Who gives a fuck what actors/comedians think? They are props, paid to say what is written for them. They should stick to that.

  16. I also heard that a great majority of applicants are falsely rejected.

  17. ATF ignores felonies that are easily proven, has ignored straw purchase and mass purchases by smugglers of firearms into Mexico,and while it is easy to identify UNLICENSED DEALERS at gun shows, chooses not to go after them. There is no gun show loophole. Only a BATFE that does not do its job. I once reported an involuntarily committed mental patient who purchased a pistol the day after his release from a mental hospital by lying on form 4473. BATF refused to take the case claiming that the offense has its own built in defense: not guilty by reasson of insanity. The proposed firearms laws in congress cannot get around the mental patient loophole. There are serious HIPPA and doctor patient confidentiality violations involved. Yet the VA unlawfully report reports PTSD patients receiving financial management services to the NCIS even though there is no reason to consider them dangerous or a threat. Viva la revolucion.

  18. what Annie said I’m in shock that people can get paid $6982 in a few weeks on the computer. have you read this site

  19. as Rachel answered I’m blown away that a person can make $7310 in 1 month on the internet. did you look at this link

  20. If you think Rachel`s story is nice, , 3 weeks ago my aunties neighbour basically broght in $5518 workin twelve hour’s a week from their apartment and the’re co-worker’s sister`s neighbour has been doing this for three months and got a cheque for more than $5518 in their spare time on their mac. apply the guide on this address,

  21. There is also the problem of people failing a background check due to a mistake (like their name is the same as a criminals). Since most people who know they will fail a check don’t bother taking one, it turns out *most* checks are in error, as John Lott pointed out:…..0263358942
    “Lott explained that “the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)… accidentally flags many law-abiding people, stopping those who simply have the same name as a prohibited individual from buying a gun.” Lott also noted that, after reviewing the numbers for 2009, 93 percent of the initial 71,010 denials were found to be okay to purchase a gun..
    Of the seven percent that went on for a deeper review involving being referred out to other agencies (i.e., FBI, BATF, etc.), over 51 percent resulted in cases where the check wasn’t even completed.

    It takes time (and potentially legal expense) to overturn that. Since some are buying guns due a real safety concern, just like with waiting periods some people will die while waiting to be able to legally purchase a gun.

  22. Blog style is so beautiful and magical, handsome man in the photo is my idol !!!! You are welcome to our website!!

  23. Great information here, I also think that

  24. go go go
    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 or flea markets.

  25. There are only 2 ways to legally sell a gun in the US. One is a private sale between individuals (ex. friends or family) or by a gun dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL) from the BATF. Only individuals with an FFL can run a background check through the government NICS database of prohibited persons. Private citizens cannot. So to fix this, you need to do 2 things:

    1) Allow any small gun dealer to get an FFL without having a storefront. Currently, thanks to the Clinton administration, you can’t get an FFL if you want to sell guns only at gun shows (See question 18a of ATF form 5310 FFL application). As a result someone that wants to sell guns but can’t afford the inventory costs and overhead of a storefront has to sell discretely as a “private citizen” and can’t run a background check. Rather than throwing these people out of the system they should allow them back in to get an FFL.

    2) Give anyone free, public, anonymous online access to the NICS database. Once this is done, you then tell private sellers if you sell a firearm to someone and don’t retain a piece of paper that says you did a favorable NICS check on the buyer, you could be held liable if they commit a gun-related crime. This would also provide an easy, fast, non-bureaucratic method for someone to determine if a suspicious neighbor, student, etc is a potential threat to society whereby the authorities could be notified to investigate.

  26. Regarding the 40% or 80% of firearm sales that supposedly transpire without a background check. That figure is incessantly quoted by the anti-guns folks with out providing any source for the statistic. However, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence references that statistic in… footnote 124 on page 22 to a 1997 DOJ report ( – page 1 or Table 8) that interviewed criminals serving prison sentences to determine where they got their firearms. In that study 39.6% said they got their guns from private sales or transfers from “family and friends” which didn’t require a background check. This begs the question – what are the scruples of the family and friends of a criminal? I don’t know what new law you could pass to close a loophole that would force likely witting family members or criminal cohorts to run background checks on other criminals when all the parties involved will probably ignore any relevant laws. Note, in the same study, another 39.2% said they obtained their guns illegally while only 0.7% said they got their guns from gun shows.

  27. That same Brady report also references two other sources (page 11 – footnote 27)

    1) Guns in America – May 1997 – 2568 person phone survey (NSPOF)
    2) Where the Guns Come From 12/2/2004….._02_04.pdf

    It is noted the Brady law was passed in 1993 and some state background check systems went into effect on 2/28/1994. However all of these references cite statistics before the National Background check system went into effect on 11/30/1998.

  28. I think it’s funny that the “2004 survey” you cite in defense of your argument links to a book chapter titled “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearm Sales Laws”. Let’s see what it has to say:

    pg. 111 – “Federal gun trafficking investigations indicate that corrupt licensed dealers represent one of the larfest channels for the illegal gun market.”

    pg. 111-2 – “A study which used crime gun trace data from 53 US cities for the years 2000-2 examined the association between state gun sales regulations and the diversion of guns to criminals.” “Strong regulation and oversight of licensed gun dealers…was associated with 64% less diversion of guns to criminals by in-state gun dealers. Regulation of private handgun sales and discretionary permit-to-purchase licensing were each independently associated with lower levels of diversion of guns sold by in-state dealers.”

    So thanks for linking to evidence AGAINST your argument, going on the assumption that hey it’s the internet, no one will actually follow the link to read the “supporting” document.

    Criminals don’t buy guns direct from the manufacturer, those guns have have to get to their friends and family or the black market from somewhere. Regulating and monitoring those channels will incontrovertibly reduce (not eliminate) the flow of guns to criminals.

  29. Daniel. you think Francis`s postlng is something… I just bought a new Lancia Straton after making 5489 this past five weeks and-in excess of, ten-k lass month. this is really the nicest job Ive ever had. I actually started 8-months ago and right away started to bring home minimum 70, per-hr. I follow the details here,

  30. my best friend’s sister makes 86 an hour on the computer. She has been out of a job for 9 months but last month her paycheck was 13265 just working on the computer for a few hours. Go to this web site and read more

  31. Do I apply for a medical mj card here in Colorado, or do I skip that and risk getting in trouble so I may apply for a concealed carry permit? Thanks to Uncle Sam, I can only have one or the other.

    Why do I suspect that the ATF would have no problem making sure tons of veterans (with “mental health issues” like PTSD – which is like an automatic diagnosis after deployment) are kept from purchasing firearms? Or am I just being paranoid?

  32. If you think Annie`s story is nice…, in the last-month my dads girlfriend basically got a cheque for $7733 sitting there thirteen hours a week from there house and they’re best friend’s mother`s neighbour did this for 3 months and got a cheque for more than $7733 part time at their pc. follow the guidelines at this website…

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.