As President Obama plans to pass new gun-control measures by executive order to extend the reach of background checks to all private sales, you may be wondering why there is such opposition to requiring all private-party gun sales to go through the same background check that gun dealers do.
Evidence should drive public policy, not hope. If a policy has been tried, has it produced the desired results?
This may be a surprise, but many states already have mandatory background checks for all firearm transfers, or for all handgun transfers; it is already a federal crime to transfer guns to another person across state lines without going through a licensed gun dealer, with very few limited exceptions.
How have those mandatory background checks worked out? A method of public policy analysis widely used by social scientists is called Interrupted Time Series Analysis (ITSA). Look at the problem you are trying to fix, then see if the problem changes when you pass a law that is supposed to fix that problem. Eight states adopted such laws for mandatory gun-background checks after 1960 (when the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system began to produce reasonably accurate and consistent data). I used the murder rates for five years before the effective date of the law and five years after to evaluate the effectiveness of such mandatory background check laws, using ITSA.
In some cases, the laws were passed while murder rates nationally were rising; in other cases while murder rates were dropping (now at a level not seen since the early 1960s). If such laws reduce murder rates, you would expect that murder rates would fall in most of those states.
Three of the eight states had statistically insignificant changes in murder rates; the changes were so small that they might have been random: Iowa murder rates rose 6.3 percent, Nebraska rose 9 percent and Rhode Island fell 10.6 percent.
California, Illinois and Massachusetts passed mandatory background-check laws for all firearm transfers effective in 1991, 1968 and 1969, respectively. In all three states, there was a statistically significant change in murder rates: California’s murder rate rose 11.6 percent; Illinois’ rate rose 49 percent; Massachusetts’ rate rose 44.3 percent.
Two states had statistically significant declines in murder rates: Maryland was down 24.2 percent after adopting a pistol background check law, and Pennsylvania fell16.7 percent after adopting a similar law. If mandatory background checks reduce murder rates, a more consistent reduction in murder rates should be the result.
The reason these laws don’t work is because people who commit murder are not the sort who obey gun control laws. The BATF published a study in June 2000 titled “Following the Gun,” in which they tracked where criminally misused guns came from. The largest group were straw purchases: guns purchased by persons who could pass a background check for a person who could not. This is already a felony. A large fraction of crime guns were stolen: 14 percent stolen from stores; 10 percent from homes; and 2 percent from shipping companies. Another 8 percent were apparently sold by corrupt gun dealers. In total, 81 percent of crime guns are already acquired through felonious means.
That same BATF report showed that federal judges give extraordinarily light sentences to gun dealers who were not even pretending to follow the law, transferring hundreds of guns without background checks. Why should we expect a new law to be enforced with any more vigor? Passing laws that we have already tried and found to be ineffective is just an exercise in feeling morally superior.
Clayton Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho.