Criminal Justice

Background checks do not diminish crime rates, but can increase them

After the horrific Las Vegas attack, it is understandable that people feel an urgent need for action. For Democrats that means pushing "universal" background checks, checks on any private transfer of a gun. Unfortunately, their top solution would produce no benefits and some harm.

On Tuesday, just two days after the attack, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof listed "universal background checks for anyone buying a gun" as the top law that would make a difference. That same day, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) was just as forceful. "Enough of the evasions that it's not time yet, that it won't deal with that problem, that the background check proposal wouldn't have stopped the killer in Las Vegas. That argument is absurd," he said. Late night talk show hosts such as Jimmy Kimmel have also delivered scathing rants about the need for this law.

Kristof and Blumenthal aren't alone. Democrats made a big push for this after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

But such expanded background checks wouldn't have stopped any of these attacks. Since 2000, all of our mass shooters obtained their weapons without using private transfers. Attacks such as the San Bernardino massacre in California and the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon occurred in states that already have universal background checks. Indeed, mass public shootings have recently occurred in France, Belgium, Norway, Germany and other European countries where these background checks also exist.

 

This hole in their argument is so glaring that even some of the media have noticed it. Last year, ABC News's Jon Karl asked Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), "Why are we focusing on things that have nothing to do with the massacres that we are responding to?" Murphy responded, "We can't get into the trap in which we are forced to defend our proposals simply because it didn't stop the last tragedy." But obviously Karl's question wasn't just limited to the most recent attack.

Research looking at U.S. data has consistently found no evidence that any type of background checks reduce rates of violent crime. Michael Bloomberg's groups are the source of contrary claims, but they fail to analyze the national data in an academic manner. They compare states with background checks next to those without them. They do not compare states before and after background checks are imposed.

Kristof claims, "Four out of five Americans support this measure." Politifact rates as "true" the statement that "90 percent of Americans support background checks for all gun sales." 

Yet that isn't how people have voted. When Bloomberg got universal background check initiatives onto the ballots of Maine and Nevada, he lost in Maine by four points, and won in Nevada by just 0.8 percent.

Polls that ask about specific pieces of legislation also don't show much support.

These background checks are also costly. They can add, for instance, north of $150 to the cost of a gun in Washington, D.C. That fee can put guns out of reach for the most likely victims of violent crime, such as poor minorities living in high-crime areas. These costs may explain the finding that these checks actually increase some types of crime.

Given that Democrats keep pushing for laws after each mass shooting before we even know the facts of the case and that they have nothing to do with these attacks, one may wonder if there are any ulterior motives. Making it costly for the poor to own guns is one explanation.

John Lott, Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and author of "The War on Guns" (Regnery, 2016).

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