Why universal background checks won't work

There are three basic problems with universal background checks; it will have no effect, the numbers don’t prove the case, and the only way to make the scheme remotely effective is repugnant to the people. Those are three big hills to climb. That’s why few politicians seem ready to take the hike.

Most important is that criminals disobey such laws (and according to the Supreme Court in their Haynes vs. U.S. decision, criminals are not legally obligated to). In a report titled “Firearm Use by Offenders”, our own Federal Government noted that nearly 40 percent of all crime guns are acquired from street level dealers, who are criminals in the black market business of peddling stolen and recycled guns. Standing alone, this shows that “universal” background checks would have an incomplete effect on guns used in crimes.

The story gets worse. The same study notes that just as many crime guns were acquired by acquaintances, be they family or friends (this rather lose category also includes fellow criminals, who are equally unlikely to participate in “universal” background checks). Totaled, nearly 80 percent of crime guns are already outside of retail distribution channels (which are 14 percent of crime gun sources) and outside of transactions made by the law abiding folks who would participate in “universal” background checks at gun shows (0.7 percent).

When 80 percent of the problem is not addressed by legislation, even if the law was enforced it would be nearly useless.

In the rush to do “something,” bad legislation is proposed and then has to be justified. When public support for “universal” registration started slipping, politicians brought out statistics to bolster their case. Unsurprisingly those statistics were as weak as the legislation itself.

“As many as 40 percent of all gun purchases are conducted without a background check,” was President Barack Obama’s assertion concerning the National Instant Check System (NICS) which is exercised by every licensed gun retailer in the country. Aside from problem that 80 percent of crime guns come from non-retail acquisitions, the president’s 40 percent number is horribly mangled and completely inaccurate.

The quoted datum (which actually totaled 36 percent, not 40 percent) came from a survey conducted before NICS came into being in 1998. The 1994 survey, reported in the 1997 study “Guns in America: National Survey on Private Ownership and Use of Firearms”, 36 percent of transfers (not sales just simple transfers of possession) were outside of background checks. “Transfer” is another very lose category which include gifts, trades, inheritances, and loans as well as sales. Indeed, 17 percent of all those transactions were non-sales, and 27 percent were outside of normal retail channels. So “universal” background checks would only extend to an additional 9% of firearm transactions under the most favorable circumstances.

Though 80 percent of crime guns already bypass the new system.

To achieve any degree of success, the “universal” background check system would require universal gun registration. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) has already acknowledged this, which doomed the bill before it was drafted. Despite denials by some politicians, registration has already led to gun confiscation in the United States – in New York, California, Chicago, District of Columbia. Voters are wary of repeating the same process in their home towns. National registration to support “universal” background checks is almost universally repugnant. This is the insurmountable hill representatives and senators face.

Universal background checks aren’t. Voters are anxious and willing to control violence. But controlling guns doesn’t control criminals and lunatics. Cops and counseling do.

Michel, an adjunct professor at the Chapman University School of Law, is the west coast legal counsel for the NRA and a senior partner at Michel & Associates, P.C.

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