Editorial Board Memo on Background Checks from Mayors Against Illegal Guns

Mar 01, 2013, 13:28 ET from Mayors Against Illegal Guns

WASHINGTON, March 1, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- Since Newtown political leaders in Washington and in state capitols across the country have considered potential solutions to the gun violence epidemic that killed 20 innocent children and six adults that day. Remarkably – and despite overwhelming public support for reform – there are still some who want to maintain the status quo or enforce existing weak laws that did nothing to prevent that tragedy or the 33 Americans who are murdered with guns every day in the United States. 

Background checks are the single most effective answer to the gun violence epidemic – and the only systematic way to stop felons, domestic abusers, and other dangerous people from buying guns.

The Private Sale Loophole

Around 40 percent of gun transfers happen without a criminal background check. This is because current federal law only requires background checks for gun sales at licensed dealers. As a result, almost 6.6 million guns are transferred each year in the U.S. by unlicensed 'private sellers,' including online and at gun shows, without a background check. 

This loophole is an enormous public safety problem. It's like setting up two lines at the airport – one where you have to go through security and one where you don't.  Which do you think criminals choose?

That's why it's sadly no surprise that a national survey of inmates found that nearly 80 percent of those who used a handgun in a crime acquired it from a private seller.

Background Checks Work 

Since 1998, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) has checked over 160 million buyers and blocked nearly two million attempted purchases by criminals and other dangerous people from buying guns. In 2011 alone, the FBI identified and denied gun sales to more than 78,000 prohibited buyers.  And over 90% of these checks are completed in ninety seconds – a small price to pay for saving many lives.

States that have closed the private sale loophole have seen the result: strong gun laws work. 

  • The number of women killed with a firearm by an intimate partner is 38 percent lower in states that require background checks on all handgun sales, even though the non-firearm homicide rates of women by their intimate partners are nearly identical.
  • The firearm suicide rate is 49 percent lower in states that require background checks on all handgun sales, even though the non-firearm suicide rates are nearly identical. 
  • According to a 2009 Johns Hopkins analysis of gun trafficking in 53 U.S. cities, intrastate gun trafficking is 48 percent lower in states where the private sale loophole has been closed. 
  • States that require a background check 
for private handgun
 sales 'exported' 64 percent fewer crime guns —guns originally sold in-state that were later recovered at crime scenes in other states.
  • In Missouri, repealing the purchase 
permit requirement – which made it possible to buy guns without a background check – also increased gun trafficking and gun murders in the state. 
    • The gun murder rate in Missouri has risen by nearly 25 percent since the repeal in 2007.
    • Before the repeal there
 were an average of 4.6 
gun murders per 100,000 
Missouri residents. In the years after repeal, the gun murder rate was higher than any of the previous years. There were an average of 5.7 gun murders per 100,000 Missouri residents each year from 2008 to 2010.
    • In the years before 
repeal, 55 percent of crime guns 
recovered in Missouri were 
originally purchased in-state.
 Since repeal, the share of crime
 guns bought in-state climbed to more than 70 percent.
    • In addition, the share of guns recovered at crime scenes within two years of their first purchase — an indicator of gun trafficking — doubled. 

Overwhelming and Broad Support for Background Checks

Requiring a criminal background check for every gun sale is strongly supported by law enforcement officials, the American public and a significant majority of gun owners, including NRA members. 

Recent polls have found that more than 90 percent of Americans support background checks for all buyers and that more Americans say they are now in favor of stricter gun laws – a nine point increase in support since the Newtown shooting. 

Polling by Republican Frank Luntz for Mayors Against Illegal Guns also found that 82 percent of gun owners – including 74 percent of National Rifle Association members – support requiring criminal background checks for anyone purchasing a gun.

Unnecessary Sticking Point: Record-Keeping

While negotiators have come close, talks have hit a roadblock over whether unlicensed sellers should be held accountable if they fail to conduct the background check the new law would require.  Some lawmakers want to put unlicensed sellers on an honor system, with no record of the sale.  That would mean law enforcement officers would have no way of knowing whether the buyer passed the check - or whether one was conducted at all.

Under current law, gun buyers complete a form at the dealer and the dealer calls the background check center to run the buyer's name through the background check system. If the buyer passes, the FBI destroys all evidence of the background check within 24 hours. The dealer keeps a copy of the background check form. If that gun is recovered in a violent crime, law enforcement can trace the serial number of the recovered gun to the dealer to find out who bought that gun—which may be a valuable lead in tracing the gun's chain of custody and identifying the criminal suspect.  But if that person sold the gun in a private sale to a stranger and kept no records, the trail goes cold, and there is simply no way for law enforcement to find out who last owned the weapon. 

Because more than 60,000 dealers – not the federal government – hold the forms this decentralized approach protects the privacy of gun owners and ensures there is no registry of gun owners.  To be clear: the federal government is expressly prohibited from maintaining a national registry of gun owners. 

Let's Not Wait for The Next Tragedy

Extending the market-tested system of required background checks to include most private sales is an easy and effective solution that will reduce the human toll of gun violence in the U.S. 

Under most proposals, private sellers would simply meet their buyers at the local dealer, who would conduct the check. And as we found out, getting to a dealer may be easier than getting to a post office.

As of January 2013 there were 31,857 post offices in the U.S. and 58,344 licensed gun dealers. That makes gun dealers nearly twice as common as post offices.

So what are our political leaders waiting for?

SOURCE Mayors Against Illegal Guns