Mass Shootings

4 Reasons 'Universal Background Checks' for Gun Buyers Are a Bad Idea

An expanded requirement would be ineffective, unjust, and unenforceable.

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Center for American Progress

Senate Democrats plan to ingratiate themselves with voters by introducing a new package of gun controls. In a letter to fellow Democrats, Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said they hope gun control advocacy "will be a rallying point for a public that is eager for congressional action and will be the basis for future legislation that we will demand," although there is zero chance that such legislation will actually pass. Schumer and Stabenow's wish list includes a requirement that everyone who acquires a firearm, whether from a private seller or a federally licensed dealer, undergo a background check. That particular change, unlike stricter gun control in general, does indeed poll well, but that does not mean it's a good idea. Here are four major problems with requiring background checks for private gun transfers as a policy, as opposed to a political stunt:

1. Expanding the background check requirement makes no sense as a response to mass shootings (even though that is how it has been presented), because the perpetrators of these crimes, including last week's massacre in Oregon, typically either have actually passed background checks or could do so because they do not have disqualifying criminal or psychiatric records.

2. Expanding the background check requirement makes little sense as a response to more common forms of gun violence, since criminals with felony records can always obtain weapons on the black market, through buyers with clean records, or by theft.

3. Expanding the background check requirement, especially if it is coupled with "improved" databases, compounds the injustice of disarming millions of people who pose no threat to others but are nevertheless forbidden to own guns because they use illegal drugs, overstay a visa, were once subjected to court-ordered psychiatric treatment, or have felony records, even if they have never committed a violent crime.

4. Expanding the background check requirement is not the same as actually compelling people to perform background checks for private gun transfers. Many gun owners will balk at the inconvenience and expense of finding and paying a licensed dealer who is willing to faciliate a transaction. In Oregon, which expanded its background-check requirement in August, some local law enforcement officials have publicly stated they do not plan to enforce the new rule, either because they do not have the resources or because they view it as an unconstitutional intrusion. The Oregonian notes that "there is no centralized registry of guns in Oregon…that could be used to track a gun found in a criminal's possession." The federal government has no such registry either, so how can it possibly hope to track transfers and make sure background checks are performed? Even with hefty criminal penalties, widespread noncompliance is a certainty. Consider: Does the theoretical prospect of a 10-year prison sentence deter gun owners from smoking pot or pot smokers from owning guns?

[Thanks to CharlesWT for the tip.]