Do Universal Background Checks Work?

              Now that all 125 Democrats who have decided to run against Sleazy Don in 2020 have announced their support of universal background checks (UBC), I think it’s finally time to ask what would happen to gun violence rates if everyone in America had to undergo a background check every time they either received or gave away a gun. After all, why bother to go through the whole hassle of a big legislative fight unless we can show that the UBC would make a difference, right? So here goes.

             There are currently 11 states which require UBC: CA, CO, CT, DE, NV, NJ, NY, OR, RI, VT, WA. Together these states currently count a total population slightly under 95 million, of whom 57 million live in California and New York. Some of these states, like New York and New Jersey, have for a long time required UBC for handgun purchases, others just implemented UBC in the last several years. But if we take these states in the aggregate and compare gun-violence rates between 2014 and 2017 (the latest year for CDC data) we get a pretty representative picture of the impact of universal UBC in these 11 states.

              The picture looks like this.  In 2014, these states had an aggregate gun-violence rate of 7.4; i.e., for every hundred thousand residents, there were 7.4 intentional fatal gun injuries: homicide, suicide and individuals shot by cops.  In 2017, the rate was 7.8.  The national rates were significantly higher – 10.31 and 11.96.  Obviously, the increase in national gun-violence rates would have been higher if we only looked at states that don’t have UCB. 

              Louisiana, for example, has jumped from 18.71 to 20.09.  Alabama has gone up from 16.05 to 22.30.  Alaska, 18.46 to 22.98.  Montana, 16.47, 22.85.  In states like Montana and Alaska, the increase is driven by gun suicides, in Alabama and Louisiana it’s homicide. One could therefore argue that while UBC has not driven down the gun-violence rates, perhaps it has kept the increase from being larger than  it otherwise might be.

              You can argue all you want one way or the other, but folks, let me break it to you gently, okay?  Until and unless we develop a system that allows us to analyze not only the geography of gun violence, but the circumstances which result in guns getting into the hands of the 145,146 individuals who committed intentional fatal gun injuries between 2014 and 2017, the correlation between gun violence rates and presence or absence of UCB  doesn’t explain anything at all.

              We have endless studies which show that gun violence which occurs in UBC states results from guns brought into those states from other states where UBC doesn’t exist. But there is not one, single study which has been done or could be done which shows how those guns got from State A to State B.  Are these guns stolen? Are these guns trafficked after a straw sale? We don’t know. We also have no idea how many guns would continue to float around even if UBC became law of the land.

              Know why UBC is always promoted as the first, legislative response to gun violence if the 2020 election results give the blue team the upper hand? Because survey after survey indicates that all those meanies who own all those guns are also in favor of UBC. Maybe I’m just a little bit old fashioned, maybe my advocacy experiences reflect what happened during the Viet Nam war. But I didn’t believe then and I don’t believe now that advocacy should rest on what public opinion says. I always thought that advocacy should set the terms of debate, not be based on what the debaters say.

              The only way we will make a significant response to gun violence is to create a national gun registry so that we will be able to track the ownership and use of every gun. Oh my God! We can’t do that – it’s a violation of the 2nd Amendment!

              No it’s not.

2 thoughts on “Do Universal Background Checks Work?

  1. Also, there are a lot of variables in play besides UBCs. For example, to be strictly correct, NYS has, since 1911, a may-issue permit system for handgun ownership (not just to carry, but merely to own the little banger), which is a much higher hurdle to jump than filling out a 4473. Legal gun owners are vetted by their county sheriff. Illicit gun ownership is, well, who knows how they get the little bangers.

    Typically, the pub health people look at poverty, race, gun laws, etc. Some studies throw the kitchen sink into the mix with GI/GO results. Culture matters with these things. One of my good friends who used to work in that National Lab somewhere between Albuquerque and Abiquiu told me that his corporate parent company (part of the consortium that ran the national lab) was once trying to figure out what controlled for accident rates between its various national sites. According to my friend, he said that after all the painstaking study, it all boiled down to region. His homely way of putting it was “our accident rates were low in New York State but in Tennessee, it was clear that the “hold my beer and watch this” culture drove the high accident rate.” Its hard to believe that such cultural variation also does not drive gun violence and frankly, the gun laws are a trailing indication of culture.

    So my problem with a lot of these synthetic studies is I think certain variables are off the table for politically correct reasons. A look at the mug shots in Albuquerque will give you a hint. Perhaps universal registration would help track guns, but trying to get everybody to register those 300-400 million smokepoles in the U.S., even though I agree would be Constitutional, is a heavy lift, as Mike would probably agree.

    The problem is with as many guns as people, some will go off at inappropriate times, either accidentally or usually on purpose. Kinda like with cars, as my wife recently found out when hers was totalled by a distracted driver (wife is OK). We can probably make incremental reductions, more likely by improving people’s lives rather than passing gun laws; Los Alamos, for example, has high incomes, high educations, and essentially zero gun violence. The recent Bureau of Justice Statistics showed a stark difference between gun violence perpetration looking at low vs. high educational outcomes (Table 4).

    But without melting down a lot of those guns and changing the national culture(s), we will have gun violence. It requires a political solution in a politically polarized nation. I don’t think we need research to prove that.

  2. Whenever someone talks about registration I think of distributed data just waiting for the government to put it all in one central database by converting all the manual ATF forms into electronic form. The database would have for the most part the owners whose guns do no harm (with some exceptions) unless they sold their guns and the data of the new owner is not available unless of course there was a background check and the transfer entered into the central database. Owners who commit suicide would be there as would owners whose guns are used for bad purposes by family members.

    Contacting all the owners and forcing them to sign affidavits saying their guns are lost or stolen and updating the database would make the people in the database appear even more law abiding.

    Unless I am really missing something here the value of registration does not sound that great unless people want to take guns away from people. That may be a good idea to prevent problems like the red flag laws attempt to do. I guess the value would be pretty high to people who want to take guns away from people who have done nothing wrong.

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