By John Lott — January 5, 2016
HOTOGRAPH BY PETE MAROVICH / BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY
Today, upset that Congress has refused, in his words, to do “something, anything” to stop gun violence, President Obama released executive actions that bring the country closer to his oft-stated goal of “universal” background checks that cover the private transfer of firearms.
The current law is very clear. Only federally licensed gun dealers are required to conduct background checks, and only sellers whose “principal objective of livelihood and profit [is] the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms” are required to obtain a federal license. Anyone “who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms” is specifically exempted from the licensing requirement.
But that doesn’t matter to Obama, whose actions today will require many sellers to get a license if they sell even a single gun. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett told reporters that licenses would now be required based on such things as, “whether you sell firearms shortly after they’re acquired or whether you buy or sell in the original packaging.”
In an era when private individuals can set up their cell phones to accept credit cards, accepting credit-card payment for one gun will now make selling firearms your “principal objective of livelihood.”
Yet Obama doesn’t have to unilaterally rewrite the law to achieve meaningful reform. He could easily pass universal background checks through Congress, just by including three simple and reasonable changes:
1) Don’t charge gun buyers. All background checks currently on the books make gun buyers and sellers pay for the cost of transferring or selling a gun. Some states require a processing fee as well as compensation to the licensed dealer who oversees the private transfer.
Yet, if it’s really true that background checks reduce crime, everyone benefits, not just gun buyers. Why not pay for the background checks out of general revenue?
Background checks on private transfers add about $80 to the cost of transferring a gun in New York, up to $60 in Washington State, and $125 in DC. These fees can put guns out of the reach of those who are the most likely victims of violent crimes: poor people living in high-crime, urban areas. If gun-control advocates care more about passing universal background checks than about who pays for them, this should be an easy and fair fix.
2) Fix the system so it stops falsely flagging law-abiding people. The current federal background-check system is a mess. Virtually everyone who fails a check is legally eligible to buy a gun.
During a recent Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton claimed that, “Since [the Brady Act] was passed, more than 2 million prohibited purchases have been prevented.” In reality, there were over 2 million “initial denials” — almost all of which turned out to be mistakes.
In 2010, the Department of Justice’s annual report on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) showed that 94 percent of “initial denials” were dropped after the first internal fact check. A 2004 review by Congress found that another two percent were dropped when the cases were sent out to BATFE field offices. Many more cases were dropped during the three remaining stages of review.
If a private company’s criminal-background checks on employees failed at anything close to the same rate, they’d be sued out of business in a heartbeat. There’s no doubt that for many of the 2.4 million people mistakenly given an initial denial, it was a mere inconvenience. But some people really do need quick access to a gun for protection.
The solution? Hold the government to the same standards as private companies.
3) Stop using background checks as de facto registration. As laws concerning handguns and “assault” weapons have evolved, such places as California, New York, and Chicago have all used registration lists to identify who owns guns that are no longer legal.
Since 2004, Congress has required the FBI to destroy NICS records of gun sales and transfers within 24 hours. But federally licensed dealers are required to keep records of background checks. Congress currently forbids federal collection of this information into a central database, but there’s no guarantee that this won’t change. The government could potentially figure out who legally owns a gun.
Gun-control proponents assure us that they aren’t setting up a registration program. Yet in the same breath, they defend gun registration as a crime-fighting tool. The logic is that police could find a gun at a crime scene and then be able to trace it to the registered owner.
In fact, guns are very rarely left at crime scenes, and those left are virtually always unregistered.
Police can’t seem to point to a single instance in which gun registration has helped them solve a crime. During a recent deposition, D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier said she couldn’t “recall any specific instance where registration records were used to determine who committed a crime.” Police in Hawaii, Canada, and other places have made similar admissions.
Instead of requiring federally licensed dealers to hold background-check information for as long as they are in business, we should place limits on how long they can hold the information that they obtain.
These proposals have been around for years, and gun-control advocates have always shot them down. They feel particularly strongly about making gun owners pay the fees for firearms transfers. During Colorado’s 2013 debate on universal background checks, Republicans offered an amendment waiving the state fee for people below the poverty level, but Democrats voted almost unanimously against it. Maryland Democrats stopped a similar move.
If Democrats really believe that universal background checks are so important, making these simple, fair changes will eliminate opposition to the policy from gun-rights proponents. If they won’t make the changes, it will only prove that their real aim is to reduce gun ownership, not to stop crime.
— John R. Lott Jr. is the president of the Crime Prevention Research Center and the author of More Guns, Less Crime.
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